Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Continuing a dialogue on American interventionism...

... that Dana Garrett and I have been having over several posts, and that I thought deserved a better audience than you generally get in the comments section. I said

Obama objected to Iraq as the wrong war, not to the concept of unilateral military inteventionism which he espouses in his speeches and in The Audacity of Hope.

To which Dana responded:

What is wrong w/ unilateral military inteventionism if it is done as a preemptive measure against a known planned attack on the US or if it is done for human rights purposes (e.g. to stop genocide)?

As long as he doesn't adopt a preventitive stance like Bush, he's different from Bush.

Dana raises two specific points here:

1) Unilateral military intervention as a preemptive measure against a known planned attack on the US

2) Unilateral military intervention for human rights purposes (e.g. to stop genocide)

Let's tackle that known, planned attack on the US, sometimes referred to as the Pearl Harbor doctrine--the idea that FDR would have been justified ambushing the oncoming Japanese fleet in international waters to stop the attack on Pearl Harbor.

First question: who decides?
Second question: what constitutes the definition of imminent?
Third question: if this is such a mainstream, defensible idea, why didn't the US adopt it during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union possessed the unquestioned ability to kill 100+ million Americans within 45 minutes any time they so chose?

That third question is the critical one. The United States survived nearly five decades of the Cold War without such a doctrine of first-strike interventionism, relying instead on the premise of massive retaliation. It is true that the US rejected repeated Soviet offers to rule out first use of nuclear weapons, but this is not really on point. That debate centered around the fact that we reserved the right of first use of nukes to respond to a biological or chemical attack, and the Soviets refused to rule out first use of those weapons.

The concept is called deterrence, and it works remarkably well if the terms are well-defined and the government possesses the international credibility that it will follow through.

It is also a stance in accord with international law, and the only moral foreign policy stance to take.

Let's consider the two primary cases from history: Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack that only military officers completely unaware of the history of the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War should have found unpredictable in 1941, especially given the deteriorating conditions of US-Japanese relations since 1938. Pearl Harbor also represented an attack executed against legitimate US military targets, rather than one aimed at causing mass civilian deaths. (Had the Japanese gotten their timing right, they intended to declare war a few hours prior to the first bombings.)

Without declaring war on Japan, it would have been constitutionally illegal for FDR to order an attack on the Imperial Japanese Navy in international waters until the Zeros and Bettys had actually crossed into American airspace.

As for 9/11, that was an attack by a sub-national group (Al Qaeda), which doesn't really allow for unilateral military intervention, does it? Who would we have attacked? Saudi Arabia, from whence most of the hijackers held passports?

What about Iraq? An immiment threat was exactly what Dubya claimed, which should become the textbook case for why the Pearl Harbor doctrine doesn't work.

Is it more dangerous to depend on deterrence than unilateral preemptive attack? In the short run, probably. In the long run, no.

What about unilateral intervention for humanitarian terms--the prevention of genocide?

As we find out with the Russians in Georgia, this kind of intervention creates dangerous precedents in international law. Here are the key questions:

Question one: what is the level of harm necessary to provoke US intervention?
Question two: how many such interventions can the US military afford to make without breaking out budget or threatening our own defenses by over-extension?
Question three: do we have a valid case for intervention if we cannot convince our allies or local powers to join us in an intervention?

That last one is also critical, even if it sounds cold and calculating. If other nations and international alliances will not support us, do we have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations?

Perhaps even more to the point, how does the nation that often supports other countries which engage in genocidal behavior (I'd say China in Tiber or Turkey against the Kurds, but then lots of really angry people visit me and fill my comments with evidence that all the Kurds are really terrorists, and the Armenians were just asking for it.)

The cold reality, Dana, is that the US cannot afford to become the world's policeman, even for genocide, from either a practical or a moral point of view. I am NOT advocating isolationism, but I believe that in 99.9% of all cases, unilateral (and preemptive) military action is not justifiable.

What scares me about President-Elect Obama is that I don't think--based on his writings and his debate performances (especially in Texas against Hillary)--he really has either a firm understanding of the practical limitations of American power or the moral consequences of unilateral military action. Is he better than Bush in this realm? Pretty low bar there, Dana. He appears to be better, so far, but he has shown a suspicious willingness to follow the lead (and the campaign contributions) of the defense industry throughout the campaign, and with the retention of Robert Gates (as well as his endorsement of the Gates plan for expanding the US military).

But I must also admit, in all frankness, that by the standard I'd set, the military adventurism of Ronald Reagan, GHW Bush, Bill Clinton, and Dubya were all consistent failures when they diverted from multi-lateral action.

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