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TGIF: Trivial Dispute: Obama versus the Interventionists

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American politics is largely a series of debates over unimportant details. These debates are conducted far above the fundamental level because the supposed contenders share the same premises. Where they disagree is at the level of application, and so the disagreements end up being fairly minor, especially if you think the premises are wrong.

This is an especially pronounced feature of what passes for foreign-policy debate within the accepted range of opinion. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Barack Obama’s address to the West Point graduates the other day. In that address, as in other speeches on foreign policy, Obama tried to position himself in what he likes to portray as the reasonable center. On the one side is “isolationism”: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders.” On the other are those he calls “the interventionists from the left and right”:

U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader — and especially your Commander-in-Chief — to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

Note how Obama stakes out his “moderate” position between isolationism and interventionism. To do this he has to misrepresent what he stigmatizes as “isolationism” and create a straw man in order to place himself in opposition to the interventionists.

Isolationism — the appropriate term is noninterventionism — does not naively suppose that what goes on in the rest of the world is of no possible interest to those of us who live in the United States. Rather, it is based on the understanding that U.S. government entry into other people’s conflicts can be counted on to make things worse by magnifying the violence and setting in motion other regrettable unintended consequences. For example, the conflict in Syria became a full-blown civil war when Obama and other Western politicians declared that President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and formally recognized certain members of the opposition as the legitimate government. This removed any incentive that Assad and the opposition had to negotiate, which would have ended the killing of innocents caught in the crossfire. U.S. assistance to alleged “moderates” in the opposition (which is dominated by al-Qaeda affiliates) prolongs the civil war and adds to the casualty toll among noncombatants.

“The West’s formal sanctification of a mishmash of oppositional forces also dealt the death blow to the original Syrian uprising,” Brendan O’Neill writes at Spiked Online. “The West had helped to reduce the Syrian people to the level of observers of — and fundamentally victims of — a civil war between oppositional forces selected and armed with the okay of the West and a regime decreed illegitimate by the West.”

This how these things go. Feel-good “humanitarian intervention” is deadly.

More generally, the noninterventionist position recognizes that the threat of terrorism, which Obama says is the principal threat Americans face — is a direct consequence of long years of U.S. support for repressive, corrupt regimes in the Muslim world, the bombing and embargoing of Iraq, and the bankrolling of Israel’s injustices against the Palestinians. Even American military officials acknowledge that antiterrorist measures — like drone killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — create more enemies than they eliminate.

Obama’s straw man is the interventionist who sees military force as the only or the primary tool in the toolbox. Who actually fits that description? Even Sen. John McCain, who’s overly fond of American military power, says the U.S. government should not send troops to Syria or go to war with Russia over Ukraine. But Obama needs this caricature so he can portray himself as the reasonable and moderate voice in the room.

You’d strain your eyes to find differences between Obama and the people he calls “interventionists.” Note that in his speech he said:

Regional aggression that goes unchecked — whether in southern Ukraine or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world — will ultimately impact our allies and could draw in our military.

Leaving aside whether what he calls aggression in any given case really is aggression (what counts for politicians is not what is done, but who does it), the only way for the U.S. military to be drawn into a situation is if a president sends it in. It is not an act of nature.

In the trivial dispute between Obama and his interventionist opponents, there’s a distinction without a crucial difference: multilateralism versus unilateralism. Obama says the U.S. government should militarily intervene, “unilaterally if necessary,” only when “core interests” are threatened. Before concluding that this standard is highly restrictive, be aware that Obama defines “core interests” as “when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.” Of course “our allies” include countries on Russia’s border and soon could include former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia. “Our allies” also include Israel, which threatens its neighbors like Iran. How do they constitute our core interests? Apparently China’s growing economy and its disagreements with Japan are also threats, if we are to believe the Obama administration.

As for “our livelihoods,” this indicates that Obama agrees with his predecessors that the American people should be compelled to go to war over oil in the Middle East. And does “when our people are threatened” include Americans traveling or working abroad? Obama’s supposed restriction turns out to be a license to police the world.

In the end, the unilateralist-multilateralist squabble serves to distract us from examining the interventionist premise per se.

To show how interventionist Obama’s alleged third way really is, here’s something else he said at West Point:

When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake — when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us — then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.

Except for the nod to “collective action,” it is hard to see how this policy distinguishes Obama from the people he calls interventionists. There is always trouble in the world to stir our conscience, and in a globalized marketplace, it is not hard to conjure up threats. So grounds for intervention — unilateral or multilateral — will never be hard to come by.

That’s why the interventionist paradigm must be replaced with principled nonintervention. Licensing the U.S. government to police the world — Obama calls it “leadership” and “American exceptionalism” — is a surefire path to disaster, even if it means only enlisting local proxies to do the dirty work. History demonstrates this. The government will always keep secrets about its activities abroad, and that secrecy will shroud from public view inevitable operations to benefit special interests — the military-industrial complex would abhor nonintervention — and to support brutal and corrupt regimes that are useful to the policy elite’s objectives. Government simply cannot be trusted with such power.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.