US Foreign policy

A little earlier today I posted a quote by John Donne. It is frequently misquoted as “Ask not for whom the bell tolls”. And the phrase “For whom the bell tolls” is, of course, the title of a book that you should read if you have not done so already.

I posted this quote because recent events (like, in the last 10 years or so) have repeatedly brought up the question of what the US role should be in foreign conflict that doesn’t directly concern us. And, more recently, (like, in the last 2 weeks) in Haiti, we’re asking that question again.

There are the easy answers, which are things like “it’s not our concern” and “it would make a great base for terrorist operations, and so we have to restore stability” but the larger question still remains.

During the period between WWI and WWII, we stuck to a policy of isolationism. This is, in at least some part, responsible for the extent with which Hitler was able to get away with the stuff that he did. After all, it wasn’t our concern. In much the same way, the activities of Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, and the rebels in Haiti and Uganda, just to pick a few places, are not our concern. So why should we get involved?

Traditionally, there have been at least three possible answers to this question, none of them strictly true, and certainly none of them comprehensive. One is that we have some financial interest in doing so. Another is that we have citizens who live there, who we need to protect. Another is that it is the Right Thing To Do, and that we need to Make The World Safe For Democracy, and other such high-sounding and humanitarian phrases.

In the last 3 years, this last reason has mutated, to some extent, into the all-purpose excuse that we need to intervene in certain conflicts because a failure to do so will strengthen the position of terrorist organizations. This excuse has been used very selectively, as have they all, in order to pick the conflicts that we think that we can win, and the conflicts that generate the best political results.

After all, there’s no political advantage in intervening in Zimbabwe. Perhaps 15% of americans have heard of Zimbabwe. We’d be fighting Robert Mugabe, who, although he’s a slimy tyrant, also was one of the key players in wresting control of the colony away from England (ok, so that’s slightly revisionist history, but it’s the one that we’d see in the news in the event of a hypothetical intervention). So there’s two political counts against it. I expect that Jesse Jackson and/or Louis Farrakhan would say something in support of Mugabe (if he hasn’t done so already). And the president that sent troops there would be painted as a racist, trying to restore land to the Rhodesian pigs. And, so, the fact that Mr Mugabe is a tyrannical despot, at least as evil as Ian Smith, who he replaced, doesn’t really matter in the “Right Thing To Do” sense, because there’s no political profit in doing it.

Similarly, Haiti is a sticky situation. Here’s an impovrished island 50 miles off the coast of Florida, whose political situation is entirely our doing. Should we intervene to help them? I honestly don’t know what I think is the Right Thing To Do in this situation.

I don’t like the fact that the USA wants to be the world’s policemen. But, at the same time, I look at the gross injustice in the world, and thing that maybe we could leverage our disproportionate wealth to address some of that injustice. Yet, it seems, that each time we do so, it is too little, or too late, or in the wrong places.

Our “intervention” in Liberia, for example, was laughable. We sent troops to sit on a boat off shore and do nothing for several weeks. Then, when we finally did send men onshore, it was an insultingly small number, and they didn’t actually do anything.

And so many of our interventions of late seem to be cleanups from botched interventions in the past. Panama (Noriega was our man), Afghanistan (our funding and training made the situation possible), Haiti (we sent in troops to put an unpopular man back in office, and then supported a clearly fraudulent election), Iraq (we opted not to finish what we started 13 years ago, and so we have to finish it now) and the list goes on. I suppose I could put North Korea on that list, but I have to admit that I’m woefully ignorant about the war in Korea.

This is not a simple question. When Moose asked “What is in it for us” in response to my earlier posting about Haiti, it struck me as a hugely complicated question. We can’t tell what the next 20 years will bring to Haiti, although it’s not likely to look much different from the last 20 years. However, politically unstable countries within missile range of our coast has been considered a fairly serious threat in the past. And, now that it is within jetliner range too, it might be considered an even more serious threat, if one chooses to believe that Al Quaeda is still planning 9-11 style attacks against major US cities. Port Au Prince is just a few minutes away from Miami.

So, what’s in it for us? Well, there’s the simple security question. It is in our national interests to keep bordering (and otherwise neighboring) countries under stable governments. There’s the matter or protection of citizens. There’s the matter of protecting our significant financial interests in Haiti – large numbers of factories employing Haitians at salaries that are so far below US poverty levels as to be considered slave labor by some activits, but a living wage there.

But I keep returning to the words of John Donne. Every man’s death diminishes me. As a citizen of the world, I should be concerned about conflicts in other parts of the world. But that’s overwhelming. There are dozens of wars going on in the world right now. The person most aware of current events is likely to be unaware of a handful of them. That that’s not even counting inter-personal warfare resulting in injuries and deaths, every minute. Just logistically speaking, how can I care about that? And, pragmatically, how can any nation assume the role of peacekeeper for even a small percentage of those conflicts? Obviously, it’s not possible. And multinational organizations like the UN have failed at this too.

I think I could probably write another 10 pages on this, so I’ll quit. But perhaps this gives at least a glimpse at why these things bother me, and why I’m so torn about our (USA) role in international affairs, as compared to our stated role, as compared to our historical role. It’s not quite as easy as some folks want it to be.