As Barack Obama continues on his weaving, hesitant and confused path toward attacking Syria, we continue to see his utter lack of a true philosophy or method when it comes to deciding America’s role in foreign interventions.
For decades, we as a country became involved in numerous conflicts, but all were, to a greater or lesser extent, related to American interests, either political, military, or economic. Unfortunately, the last century’s wars mostly involved the Cold War, and the appearance that we were countering the ‘Communist threat’. That was an overly broad vision of ‘American national interest’ that involved us in conflict after conflict that, as history showed, did little truly to benefit America.
Many keep discussing what our involvement should be in these conflicts, As I wrote last week, Mr. Obama now seems to have completely accepted the U.S. role as the world’s policeman. It is fascinating that a man who so clearly opposed our war in Iraq, and did not outwardly support our specific strategy to win in Afghanistan, now has such an expansive view of foreign policy.
It does bring us back to the core question: how do we determine if a war is ‘necessary’? Clearly it is an issue we deal with time and again, and the President Obama appears to be struggling with. I personally think that to come to the decision of getting involved in any foreign conflict, we must achieve these four goals.
1. Is there a U.S. National Interest?
I believe there are several levels of importance when in comes to issue of national interest.
First and foremost is safety and security. A response to a direct attack on the United States of America clearly falls under this category. The most glaring examples of this are Pearl Harbor and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Nobody who is reasonable would question the U.S.’s right to respond to such attacks on our vital interests, our homeland, and most importantly, our citizens.
The next level of importance is an attack on our allies. We live in the world where we need friends, and as such, we have created military alliances in order to keep the peace. Sometimes, this can backfire, as the snowball effect of the road to war in World War I showed. However, a direct attack against one of our close allies, such any member of NATO, clearly would fall into our national interest. Of course, a larger debate would occur if our more peripheral allies, such as Israel or Taiwan, were attacked.
The third, and weakest level of American national interest is when people make the argument that regional stability is essential for American well-being. This covers a wide range of issues, whether it be political stability, economic interests, or involvement in other relationships we have across the globe.
Most wars in the post-WWII era have fallen under this category: Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, The First Gulf War, Kosovo War, and even the wars in Iraq and Libya more recently. Each of these have, in one manner or another, altered the political dynamic in a region of the world we consider important, and thus, we have felt the need to move to military action.
The problem with this category is simple: there is no clear, definite U.S. interest. What appears to be important to some is clearly not important to others. Iraq is the perfect example. We can argue the issue of pre-emption, but to some, Saddam Hussein provided a threat to the United States, both because of his potential weapons, but also because of his destabilizing force on the region. Ironically, the Obama Administration makes similar claims today about Syria.
2. Do we have a list of defined goals and objectives?
This is an essential consideration for a multitude of reasons. First, to prevent the use of military use as a diversion for some other issue, such as a political crisis (Clinton firing missiles into Iraq at the height of the Monica Lewinsky crisis, for example). Second, to have a limited number of goals to prevent expansion into a larger conflict (Vietnam comes to mind). Lastly, to understand when the war is over; how can you end a war, if you have a shifting goalpost of what the war must achieve?
Afghanistan is a good example of this. Clearly, there was a vital national security interest there after 9/11. But what was the goal? Was it to simply rid the country of terrorist elements? That could have been done with air strikes most likely. Was it for regime change, to punish the Taliban? Or was it nation building? Even after a decade of fighting there, some of these questions remain unanswered. And it appears that we may be leaving that conflict before we ever really answer any of those questions.
3. Are the goals of war worthwhile?
I think this is an important question that we have more often than not skipped over in recent years. Even if we go to war, and achieve our ends…are the goals justified and meaningful?
Let us take the Korean War. Clearly, we were in the midst of the Cold War, and so any communist aggression was to be fought against, no matter the cost nor outcome. And South Korea, a strong democracy today and a stalwart ally, would say the war was worth it. But would we fight a similar war today, at the cost of over 33,000 American deaths? I find that doubtful.
Consider Iraq. We actually achieved many of our stated goals. Iraq is far from perfect, but they are relatively stable compared to the rest of the region. They have a sort of constitutional democracy; they certainly aren’t a dictatorship like their immediate neighbors. And they are no longer a threat to the larger region. However, at the cost of 4,500 American deaths, it is considered a relative failure by most.
So, even the costs of war have changed over time. The Korean War is considered a success, Iraq War a failure…although the former had 10x greater cost in American blood.
Furthermore, there is the financial cost involved. We cannot decide to go to war or not to go to war based on cost alone, but we cannot ignore the issue all together either. The Iraq War costed $784 billion in today’s dollars. The Korean War would have cost $341 Billion; Vietnam costed around $738 billion, and in turn, was a military loss.
4. Are the goals achievable?
Once you have determined if a war is of national interest, and you have a list of achievable defined goals, then you must clearly ask if such goals are achievable, under the prescribed limits set forth by the nation.
The latter part of that statement is actually more difficult than the former. That is a political question. For example, if in 2003 George W. Bush had told America that the Iraq war would take a decade, cost four thousand American lives, and would cost $700 billion dollars…I highly doubt even most Republicans would have backed the effort. Some of this cannot be known, as wars are highly unpredictable. But even within the realms of our prognostication abilities, to convince the American public such a cost was worthwhile would have been a long, hard slog.
The core of the question, whether the goals are achievable, is critical to any endeavor, not just a war effort. Can the United States, with our military force and diplomatic power, achieve victory as we have defined it? Many times in our past, we refuse to define what victory is, for a simple reason: we haven’t a clue what we are trying to achieve. Could Vietnam, for example, have been avoided if we had honestly confronted this question? Could we ever have pushed the communists out, considering the involvement of the Chinese?
One ancillary point out of this particular discussion: are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary to win the war? Are we willing to lose thousands of men, spend billions of dollars, and spend years in a concerted effort to win the conflict? This was a question we were not truly honest about with ourselves prior to Iraq, for example.
And that leads to a final point: if you can’t win the war with conventional weapons…are you willing to win the war in other methods? For example, we could have ‘won’ the war in Vietnam with tactical nuclear weapons. After all the blood and treasure we poured in there, should we have considered such drastic action? And if not, why were we there in the first place?
These questions are essential discussions that should be had before we enter any foreign conflict. We have been too laissez faire in our approach to intervening overseas, as a slow progression of more and more lackadaisical use of military force has become the norm. We certainly cannot blame Barack Obama for this, as this has been going on for decades, but a return to a more logical, thoughtful approach is necessary.
Furthermore, the belief that Congress and the American people should follow a logical, thoughtful process toward international interventionalism is not an ‘isolationist’ position. I certainly am willing to intervene overseas if the necessity arises. For example, Afghanistan was a necessary war, even though we did not do a great job answering questions 2 and 4 above before entering that conflict. I do think we could have done the country a great service however if we had answered those questions; it may have more clearly defined what our strategy was, and what steps were necessary, instead of the sometimes confused strategy that has been the hallmark of the Bush and Obama administrations for the past few years.
Tomorrow, part two of this series, with the essential question of the day: How do we answer these questions now that we face a conflict with Syria?