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Intervention and (not) learning from history

March 15, 2012

Last summer, Jonathan Chait tried to argue that America “over learns” the lessons of prior wars. Why bring it up now? Well, firstly, it was brought to my attention by Shadi Hamid, who wished to use it as a criticism of those who were “over learning” the lessons of Iraq and Libya – a line of criticism . Secondly, because it displays a distressingly familiar pattern of attack against non-interventionism, which portrays it as an emotional backlash rather than a prudential assessment of valid strategic and moral considerations.

There’s a general tendency to react too strongly to the most recent event — to re-fight the last war. My formative experiences in wars were the Gulf war, Bosnia and Kosovo — wars where  the skeptics who warned about a quagmire, and there were plenty of them, were proven decisively wrong. Because of that, I expected a similar experience. Among other things, I focused entirely on the rationale for war, which I still think was solid, and failed to think very hard about the likely outcome of an American occupation of Iraq.

Well, that’s certainly a case of at least Chait individually expecting the last war – or, well, expecting some prior war, since Chait ignores Afghanistan here, although it would have also worked. In reality though, just because Bosnia wasn’t Vietnam in the Balkans doesn’t mean it wasn’t a far more difficult and costly commitment than what interventionists originally expected. For example, UN enforced safe zones failed, then NATO air attacks in support of UNPROFOR failed to adequately relieve them, and ultimately a combined Croatian-Bosnian ground offensive and much wider bombing campaign, resulting, as Daniel Larison has noted, in some severe humanitarian consequences of its own, was necessary to win the war and create the conditions for the successful insertion of peacekeeping troops. And far from “over-learning” these actual lessons, most advocates of using a Bosnian model for intervention in Syria have continually ignored what Bosnia actually looked like.

If anything, these advocates – Hamid among them – have given the most positive possible interpretation of past U.S. interventions, such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, and ignored their failures and flaws while glossing over the differentiating circumstances that limit the applicability of the most positive assumptions derived from them. To reduce opposition to modern intervention to an overreaction to past bad experiences allows interventionists to neatly sidestep the whitewashing and oversimplification of supposed past examples of success.

But that’s not what really confuses me about these sorts of arguments:

Klein’s argument that “we should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack” is a pretty extreme position. It would rule out not just the intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, but also the Gulf War, the Korean War, and going to war against Germany in World War II, not to mention obviously Vietnam and World War I. Probably the only wars such a standard would permit would be fighting Japan in World War II and, arguably, the War of 1812.

Lines of argument like this are hardly unique to this old post – they’re frequently employed by incredulous interventionists who wish to equate reluctance to engage in war with a virtually supine military stance. So let’s get the fact states before we faint over the prospect of a United States that only fights defensive wars. America believed it was under attack or threat of attack in a lot more wars than just the ones Chait mentions. In fact, most wars we fought have been cast in a defensive light. We could well have still fought the Mexican-American War, since many American policymakers and the public, with the exception of some eccentric politicians and thinkers such as Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, believed President Polk when he said “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” While Chait likely excludes it because it was not a foreign war, Fort Sumter was another case of immediate attack. Many Americans also believed that the 1898 Spanish-American War was a case of Spanish aggression – hence “Remember the Maine.” As for World War II, claiming the U.S. wouldn’t have participated in the European front, only the Pacific, is just getting history wrong – Germany and Italy declared war on the United States first, America declared war only in response. Even in Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was sold on the basis that North Vietnam was conducting aggression against the United States’s advisory and supporting role to the South Vietnamese military. At a bare minimum, Chait’s position would have allowed U.S. participation in the European front of WWII, and taking an interpretation of defensive necessity as broad as was taken by the contemporary policymakers, the Mexican and Spanish American wars probably would have gone too. But Chait doesn’t really think Klein is being an anti-interventionist:

Rather, I think he’s over-reacting to the debacle of the Iraq war in a way that’s probably emblematic of a lot of liberal, centrist and realist thought. Gung-ho intervention in World War I led to isolationism in World War II. Success in World War II led to hubris in Vietnam. The sweeping success of the Gulf War led to the hubris of the Iraq war, which will in turn is producing an over-reaction of its own.

I don’t know about Klein, but I think trying to reduce non-interventionist principles to a historical pathology seems a wee bit too simplistic to me. These closing sentences are, in essence, an act of obfuscation to protect a historical narrative privileging intervention’s place in modern U.S. foreign policy. To characterize American opposition to World War II as a mere act of opposition to World War I is incredibly misleading and ignores the long-standing tradition of American non-involvement in European affairs that was decades old by World War I itself. Characterizing it as a mere overreaction to World War I reduces an American political tradition with a great deal of strategic thought behind it to an emotional backlash, rather than an attempt to reassert the status quo.

Similarly, there was a large and very significant group of folks who learned the exact opposite lesson from World War I – that the United States had to be prepared for the next war, and in a big way. American military planners who were ashamed at the country’s wartime readiness continually insisted on new measures to ensure such a humiliation and endangerment did not occur again. Indeed, the Color War Plans and the preparation efforts which followed within the U.S. military and its associated institutions, as well as organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, all demonstrated that Americans in policy circles were concerned with trying to do the next world war better than the first. Indeed, the U.S. formulation of the RAINBOW war plans would lead to the codification of a Germany-first strategy before U.S. entry into World War II itself. Certainly World War I and its aftermath also convinced Roosevelt and many other American internationalists that a more vigorous and robust U.S. involvement in global affairs was necessary. The complex and multifaceted U.S. reaction to World War I, which the above paragraphs haven’t even begun to capture in its entirety, is a strong rebuke to the simplistic narrative that U.S. policy planning mistakes can be reduced to simple overreactions or “over-learning” of prior wars. What

As for the hubris of World War II leading into Vietnam, I can’t think of any strong evidence for this. Whatever hubris America had from World War II, it clearly had already died on the battlefields of Korea long before. Indeed, Korea motivated the initial opposition of the Johnson administration into entering the war in force. It is impossible to understand what Johnson meant when he refused “to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves” without this context. Instead, the overwhelming motivation for U.S. involvement in Vietnam was fear. Johnson feared Vietnam being to his administration what the fall of mainland China was to Truman’s. The more consistent proponents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, if they brought anything from World War II with them, was in combination the lessons of China and Korea that it was better to check totalitarian expansion with a firm blow early rather than fight a larger war later. But rather than “over-learning” the lessons of World War II, it would be more accurate to say that proponents of Vietnam learned the wrong lessons about, say, German expansion in WWII or the fall of China, and failed to adequately internalize the right reasons from Korea. Far from taking the lesson of the Korean war to the extreme, Johnson ultimately discarded them for fear of the political consequences of weakness.

Today, Hamid and other interventionists claim that we are “over-learning” the lessons of Iraq and Libya by being cautious about Syria. But far more than over-internalizing the lessons of Iraq, non-interventionists are acting from what is basically a relatively consistent U.S. opposition to wars except in cases of severe threat, based on moral principles and a relatively sound understanding of the international strategic context and the unpredictable nature of war. In reducing U.S. foreign policy into a cycle of overcompensation and emotional overreaction, Hamid, Chait and others pathologize the arguments for non-intervention rather than needing to directly confront them on their merits – a theme that Chait has sounded since the Libya debate, when he claimed that opponents of the war were simply bitterly reliving the lead-up to Iraq. His ending was telling:

I concede that failure is a possibility. Intervention strikes me as the least-bad alternative, but that position could be proven wrong by events. As I’ve been saying, this is crux of the question.

But I don’t think the “moral blackmail” of war supporters is what’s preventing a straightforward debate over the likely outcome of this intervention. I see the impediment to this debate being the left’s still-raw wound from Iraq expressing itself as an imaginary sensation of intellectual persecution.

Note that Chait says his position could be proven wrong “by events”  – the only logical approach to intervention is to conduct it, and find out if we’re wrong only after we’ve tried. Now, we have Hamid  and others demanding that America must “atone” for Iraq – as if launching a Syrian war will bring back the lives lost and treasure spent in Iraq, or make Al Qaeda in Iraq, or make radical terrorist organizations or Iran any less likely to resist U.S. objectives throughout Syria or the rest of the region. Making arguments about intervention about isolationism, overreaction, and emotional pathology just distracts from the actual arguments at hand – that non-interventionists are not merely stubborn recalcitrants trapped by history, but making a rational and moral strategic case of their own, while much of the history being bandied about by advocates of intervention is far too charitable  in its treatment of U.S. foreign policy. Rather than suffering from an “over learning” of history, U.S. intervention policy has far too consistently allowed shallow and sloppy history to bridge the gap between international crisis and rapid response – with malignant consequences and disappointment as the result.

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