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Aug. 6 2010 - 2:45 pm | 211 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

A supposedly horrible thing we may yet do again

Responding to an argument I made over at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog, Kevin Drum says he’s not so optimistic that the Iraq-war disaster has made America unlikely to engage in foreign military adventures for the next few decades.

We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we’d never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of “like that” might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?
Right now it looks like we’ve learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one’s banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let’s not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I’ll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

I think Kevin is basically right about this, but would clarify a couple of things. First, what I meant wasn’t that the US has been dissuaded from engaging in any kind of foreign military shenanigans for the foreseeable future. I was really thinking of the particular brand of nuttiness encapsulated in the invasion of Iraq: an unprovoked “pre-emptive” attack predicated on the idea that our troops will be welcomed with flowers, democracy will break out all over, and we’ll be able to bring the troops home fairly quickly at a modest cost, leaving behind a pro-American, pro-Israeli government. I think that kind of madness is off the table for quite some time. Somewhat more broadly, I doubt we’ll see any unprovoked American attacks on other countries, regardless of how “threatening” they seem, unless perhaps Cuba tries to buy a nuke from North Korea or something.

But I don’t think it impossible that we might see other kinds of limited military interventions, and I think some of the examples Kevin provides are illustrative of the kinds that may still occur. As he says, the US got out of Vietnam in 1973, and got into Afghanistan by 1980. But we intervened in Afghanistan by supporting local tribal-religious rebels in the hopes of handing the Soviets their own Vietnam. We weren’t trying to establish anything in particular in Afghanistan; we didn’t really care what happened to the country so long as it made things hard for Moscow. And, by its own lights, that strategy worked. In hindsight, Afghanistan would probably be better off today if the Russians had won, but the Afghan quagmire was among the reasons why the Gorbachev faction decided to forego military intervention as a means of quelling anti-communist political turmoil in the near abroad, so a Soviet victory in Afghanistan might have meant no velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. Anyway, the point is, it’s not at all hard to imagine that the US might use limited force or special forces to back local allies against a foreign adversary in some third country in the near future.

This would be similar to the model of US intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which Kevin also cites. And again, one thing to note about the US military efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador is that, by their own lights, they worked. Certainly, they were bloody and unconscionable messes that involved American support for terrorism and war crimes, but the aim was to crush left-wing Soviet-backed authoritarian agrarian-socialist movements in favor of right-wing US-backed authoritarian plutocratic pseudo-democratic regimes, and that aim was achieved.

You could get deeper into the reasons why US interventions in Central America, and later in the Balkans, more or less achieved their own aims at an acceptable cost, while the interventions in Vietnam and Iraq (and, probably, Afghanistan) failed, at unacceptable cost. I would concentrate pretty heavily on proximity and zones of influence: Central America is the US’s restive backyard, the Balkans are Europe’s, and these things make a very big difference. But the main point is that I think the US won’t be cooking up excuses to launch pre-emptive attacks on supposed rogue states in the next couple of decades. Whether the US will send in Green Berets to back, oh, Christian rebels in southern Sudan, or whatever, is another question.


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    About Me

    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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