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Weak Tea, Part II

Ross Douthat responds to Daniel McCarthy's critique of Douthat's earlier defense of a chastened, more cautious interventionism:

I think my disagreement with the non-interventionist point of view comes down to the question of whether the benefits that flow from the Pax Americana that's been created by America's quasi-imperial role in the world are worth the blunders that more-or-less inevitably accompany it. (Snip)

As for the secondary point of whether it's vain to hope for the sort of caution I'd like to see in foreign policy without a purist non-interventionism as our north star, I'm afraid I don't agree. There have been plenty of reckless decisions undertaken by American leaders over the last half-century, but there have also been plenty of leaders who proceeded with an admirable caution in committing American troops abroad, without being anything close to purist non-interventionists in spirit or in practice. (Snip) ... George H.W. Bush refrained from occupying Iraq in 1991 (though of course that created other problems down the road), Bill Clinton refrained from intervening in Rwanda (wrongly, in my view, but that's an argument for another day) and from committing ground troops to the Kosovo War...

s regards the first point, it is this sort of pragmatism that usually obscures the fundamental issues in the dispute between interventionists and noninterventionists, which, though they can encompass disparate cost/benefit calculations, go beyond such balance-sheet exercises. For one thing, there is the question of whether it is really licit in the first instance, and consonant with a government's obligations to the governed, to engage in any sort of intervention. Perhaps, on balance, intervention would make us safer and wealthier. I happen to think that the consequences are mixed in the best of times, and largely negative the longer one's perspective becomes; but even if the consequences could be foreseen with such perspicuity that we could say, with certainty, that we'd be safer and wealthier, it still doesn't follow that intervention gets the green light. Why not? Because we shouldn't be utilitarians; many things that might make us safer and wealthier are immoral - transforming some Near Eastern nation into the proverbial ocean of glass, carpet-bombing... you get the picture. Hence, it is not a question of whether interventionism works, and, if so, when, and under what circumstances, but of whether it is moral to start with.

Secondly, a point that ought to be appreciated by every conservative who draws breath is that there are always - always - unintended consequences, particularly in foreign affairs, where nations naturally resent interference, and frictions are much higher than they are domestically. Is it even necessary to cite the prominent examples? Overthrowing Mossadegh seemed to make sense at the time, though it stoked nationalist resentments that ultimately fused with Islam and begat the Islamic Revolution. Giving the Soviets their Vietnam in Afghanistan certainly helped push the Soviet Union to the brink, but it also, at a minimum, established the conditions of the possibility of... the Taliban.

As regards the second point, the response must be an extension of the foregoing. The question is not whether George H.W. Bush acted prudently in foregoing an Iraqi occupation, but whether Gulf War I should have been undertaken at all. Similarly, the question is not whether Bill Clinton should have sent in the ground troops as part of the war crime against Serbia glorious liberation of Albanian irredentists and terrorists Kosovo War, but whether the campaign ought to have been undertaken at all. In other words, the question of interventionism is not a question of prudence in bello; it is a question of jus ad bellum.

Daniel McCarthy's argument still stands. Because interventionists of the various policy schools don't accept the moral dimensions of, or don't pose the same moral questions as, noninterventionism, they can always conjure from within those policy frameworks rationales for interventions - which are almost always, at some level, self-interested, have unintended and unforeseen consequences, and are morally dubious. We have no need of a more prudent interventionism, an interventionism that works. We need to recall that history has no end, and the Nemesis always lurks.

Comments (2)

Yeah -- let's just adopt the militant isolationist attitude of the then Socialist Party USA, who regarded World War II as merely a brawl between rival British and German imperialisms -- not that Hitler had to be stopped -- God forbid, most especially, by American armed intervention!

As the Eccl 1:10 says, "Nothing new under the Sun..."

"America First" has been reborned, it seems.

I've no intention of initiating yet another thread on WWII. We have one down below, with many substantive comments, and have no need of another. I did not mention WWII, but rather several of the pointless 'goings-abroad-in-search-of-monsters-to-destroy' that have characterized postwar American foreign policy. WWII, while soiling every national participant, is at least debatable, as recent weeks have demonstrated. Not so these other exercises.

America First? I think that is a fine notion, much better by far than the attitude of our establishment, which is, "America at the back of the bus", seated behind various hegemonists, globalists, corporatists, ideologues, and pornographers-of-compassion.

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