Ten Miles Square


May 31, 2012 11:46 AM One Simple Rule for U.S. Military Intervention

By Michael Kinsley

As demand starts to build on President Barack Obama to “do something” about the deteriorating situation in Syria, let’s review where the U.S. and its citizens stand on the general question of using military force abroad.

On this issue, Americans are divided in strange ways. It’s no longer a matter of hawks and doves. There are liberal hawks and conservative doves as well as conservative hawks and liberal doves.

Liberal doves oppose almost any use of U.S. power because their mindset hardened during Vietnam. War kills children and other living things. We can’t be the world’s policeman, and so on. This sounds dismissive, but it’s not meant to be. In fact, it’s more or less where I come out.

Then there are liberal “bleeding hawks,” who see a humanitarian catastrophe developing in Syria — or virtually any place else in the world where there is strife of any kind — and think that the world’s only superpower (for the moment) must not stand idly by. This is what we did for too long in the Balkans, while thousands died.

Conservative doves have roots that go back further than Vietnam, to the pre-World War II isolationism — and sometimes overt fascist sympathies — of groups like America First and people like Father Coughlin. This group is nourished by pathological hatred of Democratic presidents from FDR through Obama, and its members tend to reflexively oppose anything these presidents propose or do on any topic, foreign or domestic.

America the Powerful

Conservative hawks, by contrast, reflexively favor almost any use of American power because, well, it’s American and powerful. That sounds dismissive, and it’s meant to.

This group includes the so-called neocons, and because most of the action since the end of the Cold War has been in the Middle East, they are sometimes suspected of carrying water for Israel. That’s unfair. An odd combination of macho and scaredy- cat, they see peril to the U.S. everywhere, and want to stamp it out.

This taxonomy leaves out the foreign policy “realists,” mainly but not always Republicans (of the no longer extant “Rockefeller” or “liberal” variety), and mainly but not always anti-intervention. Self-described “realists” pride themselves on their steely focus on national interests and power politics — no idealism, here, please. Their high priest is George F. Kennan, who came up with the Cold War policy of “containment.”

Another group in this debate that crosses party and ideological lines might be called the new constitutionalists. These people have noticed that the Constitution requires a president to get the approval of Congress before going to war.

This provision was largely ignored during the Cold War. It was considered impractical when possible conflicts were likely to be low-grade guerrilla wars, or top-secret CIA mischief, or quick nuclear exchanges that would be over, with millions dead, in 45 minutes. None of these styles of combat lent themselves to a leisurely debate out of the 18th century.

Today’s wars, however, are perfectly suited to what the Constitution requires: They are deliberate, highly optional decisions made by the U.S. to initiate hostilities, after months of television yak that is no substitute for a relatively dignified senatorial debate. (The Constitution requires the debate, not the yak.)

The situation in Syria is further complicated by the familiar question of who’s the good guy. The bad guy is clearly Bashar Al-Assad, another son of a dictator who has gone into the family business. But his opposition is a mixture of unattractive clerics and their followers, liberal reformers, and left-wing radicals. Traditionally we have anointed a pro-U.S. figure as our boy, such as Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, Arturo Cruz in Nicaragua, Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq, or the current favorite, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, and traditionally he disappoints us.

Maximum Force

Our guiding star in questions of intervention used to be the (Colin) Powell Doctrine, named for the admired retired general. The Powell Doctrine held that the lesson of Vietnam is: If you are going to intervene in some distant land, do so with maximum force for a quick victory and the uncomplicated support of the citizenry back home. This standard can almost never be met (which may have been Powell’s point). It was, in effect, a recipe for isolationism.

So the Powell Doctrine has been ignored: successfully in places like Kosovo, and somewhat less successfully in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both these latter cases, we forgot another supposed lesson of Vietnam, which is that to avoid a “quagmire,” you need an “exit strategy” — some way to get out short of total victory, in case that latter option is not available. But your exit strategy cannot be a “hard and fast deadline,” as Obama has promised in Afghanistan and achieved in Iraq, because that tells the bad guy that all he has to do is hang on until Date X and he wins.

People used to make a great distinction between America’s interests, America’s values and purely humanitarian concerns. Intervention to protect the first was regarded as mandatory, serving the second and third was not.

In practice, at least in the Middle East, they all get muddled. We have an interest in promoting our values. A Syria without Assad, like a Libya without Gadhafi or an Iraq without Saddam or an Iran without nuclear weapons, is a safer place for Americans as well as a healthier place for the locals.

However, when weighing the pros and cons of some potential use of U.S. military force in a distant land, we tend to credit our good intentions as if they had been realized. One lesson of recent interventions is that, even as the world’s greatest superpower, we aren’t very good at these things. We squeezed Iraq’s economy for a decade between the two Persian Gulf wars. How many innocent lives did that cost? Developments in military technology — such as drones — make intervention less costly in blood for us and thus possibly make it easier to contemplate. They do little to change the equation for the people we are sincerely trying to help.

Just Because

Intervention never will be, and maybe never should be, an all-or-nothing decision. There are goals that are worth attempting, but may not be worth giving our all for.

We will never have logically consistent rules about such things (to the frustration of people, including me, who tend to equate logical consistency with justice and good sense). To questions like, “Why Iraq but not Iran?” or, “Why are we standing by while a Syrian dictator tears apart his own country?” the answer is, “Just because.”

Decisions about using force will always be affected, if not determined, by extraneous factors. Is it an election year? How is the economy? Have there been a lot of these situations lately? All these considerations affect a decision whether to use military force even though they have nothing directly to do with it.

Too often, when we weigh the costs and benefits of some form of intervention, we take credit for our intentions, rather than the results. Whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq would have been worth the costs if we were leaving behind a stable democracy as promised is a very different question from whether the war was worth it as it actually turned out.


  • veblen's dog on May 31, 2012 3:35 PM:

    Mr. Kinsley, you use a phrase that often gets bandied about as though it had a clear meaning: "American Interests."

    I've been an American for almost 60 years, and seldom have "american interests" been the same as those of my family. When I hear a politician use that phrase, I always think "Uh-oh, now which company is going to profit, what's it gonna cost me, and how many kids have to die?"

  • Milt on June 02, 2012 12:51 PM:

    In the 235 years this country has been around, it has started or participated in about 100 wars. Given that most wars last a while, that means we are constantly at war except for the period of time between WWI and WWII (27 years during which we only fought in one action). It is time we admit that the United States is not a peace-loving nation and that we only fight to protect our freedom. The sooner we admit that we are a violent nation that loves to fight each other or any other country, the sooner we can begin to face reality.

  • TomParmenter on June 02, 2012 5:54 PM:

    That Pax Americana between the world wars featured, oh, I don't know, a dozen Latin American 'expeditions' by the Marine Corps.

  • Bernard HP Gilroy on June 02, 2012 11:13 PM:

    Maybe I missed it, but where was the "one simple rule" promised in the headline?

  • jheartney on June 03, 2012 11:35 AM:

    I think one of the irresistible forces pushing the country to (pointless) war is the sheer size of the military establishment. Whenever you have any external situation that might theoretically be remedied by application of force (and such situations are both constant and innumerable), then you'll have belligerent pundits* pushing for intervention. We have the troops, we're paying them anyway, why not use them?

    I think one of the most important lessons from our most recent Iraqi and Afghan adventures is that even the most powerful and expensive military on Earth can be ground to dust by determined insurgents. Time for us to admit that military invasion is an obsolete tactic, and resize our military accordingly.

    *Said pundits generally have neither military experience nor family members likely to be put in harm's way.

  • Erik on June 03, 2012 6:55 PM:

    Great piece! Really enjoyed it and found it thought provoking.

  • Paul on June 04, 2012 6:15 AM:

    I agree with Mr. Gilroy, I don't see the one simple rule. Maybe the headline is meant to be ironic, which would make some sense if there was a question mark at the end.

  • low-tech cyclist on June 22, 2012 3:47 PM:

    I've got three simple rules that I think would improve things. The guiding spirit is that if we're going to go to war, and stay at war, we should be united behind it; if the war loses support at home, then it's time to come home.

    Here's the rules:

    1) To initiate overseas military involvements, a 2/3 majority of each house of Congress should be the requirement, not just a simple majority. 51% support just ain't good enough to go to war on; it might have only minority support by next week.

    2) That authorization should be good for no more than 5 years, and shorter than that if Congress includes it in the authorizing legislation. But renewal of the authorization can be done by simple majorities of both houses: the standard for continuing at war is rightly lower than that for initiating one. But this would end nonsense like our continuing to operate, in 2012, the GWOT under the authorization that Congress gave back in 2001.

    3) At any time, Congress can revoke an authorization to be at war by a simple majority of both houses, at which time the President has a year to cease hostilities and bring the troops home.

  • low-tech cyclist on June 22, 2012 3:49 PM:

    (continuing from previous comment)

    You'd need a Constitutional amendment to enact these rules. It would be worth a try.

  • Davis X. Machina on June 24, 2012 10:30 AM:

    ltc, Bush's excellent adventure in Iraq fits all of those except the first, and then very nearly so.