The Myth of the "Good" Intervention
Particularly given recent events in Ukraine, the question must be asked: is there such a thing as a "good" US military intervention?
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Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine has engendered questions about interventionism that are central to the future of U.S. foreign affairs: Is it possible for the United States to undertake “good” military interventions for causes that some segment of Americans deem worthy? Or should the United States militarily retreat from the world, leaving the affairs of other regions to those more directly affected by them?
On first glance, the answer to these questions appears to be simple, especially for the anti-imperialist: of course the United States should refuse to intervene militarily in foreign affairs that don’t directly threaten US “interests.” But this position—which, to be transparent, is my own—nevertheless begs two additional, and crucial, questions: What are the United States’ “interests,” and who gets to decide them? Can an anti-imperialist really refer to US “interests” with a straight face?
In our present political structure, foreign policy is largely insulated from the demos. As such, the elites determining the “interests” of the United States aren’t usually looking to public opinion for advice or guidance. Instead, parochial reasons shape what elites consider the “national interest,” whether they’re ideological (elites believe the United States should rule the world because it benefits both Americans and those living abroad); economic (elites want to make money by selling weapons, or they want to ensure access to raw materials, or they want to guarantee they maintain their jobs within the US national security bureaucracy or parastate); or political (elites are afraid to challenge the status quo for fear of losing a future election or appointment).
Put another way, talk of US “interests” elides the unequal and undemocratic political-economic structure in which ordinary Americans find themselves. An observant leftist, upon hearing the phrase “national interest,” might rightly question whose interests we’re discussing, and might rightly conclude that they aren’t those of ordinary Americans.
Nevertheless, it’s my belief that anti-imperialists need to make use of the language of “interests” if we are to find broader purchase in American society. In particular, we must emphasize that the only interest shared by the broad swath of Americans has little to do with American prestige, economics, politics, or culture. Simply stated, Americans of all stripes share one thing, and that is that they don’t want to be attacked or threatened where they live, work, and play. While most things are negotiable, the general interest in security is not.
When speaking in the public sphere, then, anti-imperialists should emphasize the centrality of security to a fair and just US foreign policy. And when they do, they should make clear that most of what the United States does abroad has little or no relation to the security of the American people.
Now, to return to the questions with which I began this column: Is there such a thing as a good military intervention? Or are military interventions necessarily bad?
On this question, the historical record is clear: when the US military intervenes abroad, disastrous consequences follow. The litany of calamitous US-led wars is well-known, but worth repeating: Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1955-1975), Afghanistan (2001-2021), Iraq (2003-2011), and Libya (2011). And this list does not even include the litany of times the United States used various methods to covertly overthrow regimes, as occurred in France (1947-1952); Italy (1947-1968; 1972-1973); Iran (1952-1953); Guatemala (1952-1954); Japan (1952-1968); Lebanon (1957-1958); Congo (1960); the Dominican Republic (1960-1961; 1961-1962; 1965-1968); British Guiana (1961-1971); South Vietnam (1963; 1967-1971); Bolivia (1963-1966; 1971); Brazil (1964); Portugal (1974-1975); Afghanistan (1979-1989); Nicaragua (1980-1989); Poland (1981-1989); Chad (1981-1982); the Philippines (1984-1986); and Chile (1962-1973; 1984-1989).1 Indeed, as the political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke has discovered, “the United States supported authoritarian forces in forty-four out of sixty-four covert regime changes, including at least six operations that sought to replace liberal democratic governments with illiberal authoritarian regimes.”2 And tragically, as O’Rourke further underlines, “countries that were targeted by the United States for a covert regime change during the Cold War were more likely to experience a civil war or an episode of mass killing afterward.”3
Clearly, then, the historical record suggests that when American leaders have the capabilities to do so, they pursue interventions that regularly result in terrible consequences. To take the most recent examples, according to the Costs of War project, post-September 11 US wars have cost the nation $8 trillion; have directly resulted in the deaths of over 929,000 people; and have displaced 38 million people.
And without adjudicating whether or not the “good” interventions to which members of the foreign policy establishment generally point—the Gulf War of 1990-1991, interventions in the Balkans in 1995 and 1998, and even US support for the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s, (which until September 11 was regarded as a noble effort)—were genuinely “good,” no matter how you slice it it’s clear that “bad” interventions far outweigh “good” ones.
Simply put, nothing in the history of US foreign policy after 1945 suggests that the nation is capable of pursuing “good” military interventions or covert regime changes.
As the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, the Biden Administration has made clear it will not send troops to Ukraine, though it might support Ukrainian insurgents. While the US left is politically weak and has little influence, we should do everything in our power to begin building a consensus among the public and the elite that makes clear that the only way the United States will stop acting irresponsibly abroad is if the nation no longer has the capabilities to do so. Good interventions are a chimera that will rarely, if ever, be realized in reality.
Lindsey O’Rourke, Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018), 3. As O’Rourke affirms, “when a state wants to overthrow an adversary, it often attempts a covert regime change—by assassinating a foreign leader, staging a coup d’état, manipulating foreign elections, or secretly aiding dissident groups in their bids to oust a foreign government.” Ibid., 1.