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The non-interventionist moment

By Andrew J. Polsky


The signs are clear. President Barack Obama has nominated two leading skeptics of American military intervention for the most important national security cabinet posts. Meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who would prefer a substantial American residual presence after the last American combat troops have departed in 2014, Obama has signaled that he wants a more rapid transition out of an active combat role (perhaps as soon as this spring, rather than during the summer). The president has also countered a push from his own military advisors to keep a sizable force in Afghanistan indefinitely by agreeing to consider the “zero option” of a complete withdrawal. We appear on the verge of a non-interventionist moment in American politics, when leaders and the general public alike shun major military actions.

Only a decade ago, George W. Bush stood before the graduating class at West Point to proclaim the dawn of a new era in American security policy. Neither deterrence nor containment, he declared, sufficed to deal with the threat posed by “shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend” or with “unbalanced dictators” possessing weapons of mass destruction. “[O]ur security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.” This new “Bush Doctrine” would soon be put into effect. In March 2003, the president ordered the US military to invade Iraq to remove one of those “unstable dictators,” Saddam Hussein.

This post-9/11 sense of assertiveness did not last. Long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan discredited the leaders responsible and curbed any popular taste for military intervention on demand. Over the past two years, these reservations have become obvious as other situations arose that might have invited the use of troops just a few years earlier: Obama intervened in Libya but refused to send ground forces; the administration has rejected direct measures in the Syrian civil war such as no-fly zones; and the president refused to be stampeded into bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

The reaction against frustrating wars follows a familiar historical pattern. In the aftermath of both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, Americans expressed a similar reluctance about military intervention. Soon after the 1953 truce that ended the Korean stalemate, the Eisenhower administration faced the prospect of intervention in Indochina, to forestall the collapse of the French position with the pending Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu. As related by Fredrik Logevall in his excellent recent book, Embers of War, both Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were fully prepared to deploy American troops. But they realized that in the backwash from Korea neither the American people nor Congress would countenance unilateral action. Congressional leaders indicated that allies, the British in particular, would need to participate. Unable to secure agreement from British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, Eisenhower and Dulles were thwarted, and decided instead to throw their support behind the new South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem.

Another period marked by reluctance to use force followed the Vietnam War. Once the last American troops withdrew in 1973, Congress rejected the possibility they might return, banning intervention in Indochina without explicit legislative approval. Congress also adopted the War Powers Resolution, more significant as a symbolic statement about the wish to avoid being drawn into a protracted military conflict by presidential initiative than as a practical measure to curb presidential bellicosity.

It is no coincidence that Obama’s key foreign and defense policy nominees were shaped by the crucible of Vietnam. Both Chuck Hagel and John Kerry fought in that war and came away with “the same sensibility about the futilities of war.” Their outlook contrasts sharply with that of Obama’s initial first-term selections to run the State Department and the Pentagon: both Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates backed an increased commitment of troops in Afghanistan in 2009. Although Senators Hagel and Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, they became early critics of the war. Hagel has expressed doubts about retaining American troops in Afghanistan or using force against Iran.

Given the present climate, we are unlikely to see a major American military commitment during the next several years. Obama’s choice of Kerry and Hagel reflect his view that, as he put it in the 2012 presidential debate about foreign policy, the time has come for nation-building at home. It will suffice in the short run to hold distant threats at bay. Insofar as possible, the United States will rely on economic sanctions and “light footprint” methods such as drone strikes on suspected terrorists.

If the past is any guide, however, this non-interventionist moment won’t last.  The post-Korea and post-Vietnam interludes of reluctance gave way within a decade to a renewed willingness to send American troops into combat. By the mid-1960s, Lyndon Johnson had embraced escalation in Vietnam; Ronald Reagan made his statement through his over-hyped invasion of Grenada to crush its pipsqueak revolutionary regime. The American people backed both decisions.

The return to interventionism will recur because the underlying conditions that invite it have not changed significantly. In the global order, the United States remains the hegemonic power that seeks to preserve stability. We retain a military that is more powerful by several orders of magnitude than any other, and will surely remain so even after the anticipate reductions in defense spending. Psychologically, the American people have long been sensitive to distant threats, and we have shown that we can be stampeded into endorsing military action when a president identifies a danger to our security. (And presidents themselves become vulnerable to charges that they are tolerating American decline whenever a hostile regime comes to power anywhere in the world.)

Those of us who question the American proclivity to resort to the use of force, then, should enjoy the moment.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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