Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Good Word for Isolationism

I am not an isolationist.  I am, however, a lot closer to that position than I was 25 years ago.  Back then, the major threat to the United States was the Soviet Union.  We were in a Cold War, and I thought it was important to fight them and their proxies everywhere.

I don't know if my views have changed because we're fighting a different sort of war now, or if it's just because I've gotten older.  Either way, I'm definitely finding more reason to be sceptical of foreign intervention in a whole host of places.

I was not a big proponent of the Iraq war.  (Is that how history will know it, as "The Iraq War"?)  Attempts to paint it as a "war for oil" are really hard to take seriously, but I was never convinced that Saddam Hussein and his regime posed an urgent threat to the United States or any of its immediate neighbours.  I was not strongly against the war, as I viewed getting rid of a brutal dictator as a good thing.  My major complaint was that Bush should have gratefully accepted the U.N.'s offer to rebuild Iraq after the war was over.  I certainly did not foresee the long counter-insurgency war the U.S. would have to wage to pacify Iraq, but it was easy to predict that establishing a stable government there was going to be a lot harder than defeating Iraq's armed forces.  Having disposed of the dictator, I thought it would be great for the United States to allow the U.N. to manage the more difficult job of reconstruction.  It is a bit cynical, but it would also, I think, have been the best thing for all involved.  Besides, if the U.N. then had problems, the U.S. could always complain, "You should have let us do it!"

But why invade Iraq in the first place?  A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a state is certainly destabilizing and threatening, but I would have to have evidence not only that Iraq was working on nuclear weapons, but that their developement was imminent.  Chemical weapons, which also get lumped under the WMD designation, are not nearly so threatening on a mass scale.

What about Afghanistan?  Since Al Qaeda had effectively declared war on the U.S., and since the Afghan government was either unwilling or unable to restraint it, it makes sense that destroying Al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan would be an important U.S. interest.  On the other hand, did we need to establish an effective, friendly Afghan government that would prevent all future terrorist activity for all time to come?  I thought the British and Russians had pretty much demonstrated that fighting a war of conquest in Afghanistan was a losing proposition.  (We're not trying to conquer Afghanistan, of course, but establishing a friendly Afghan government is, if anything, an even higher bar.)  The country is mountainous and hard, people are among the poorest in the world, and they pride themselves primarily on being fighters.  Yes, it would be nice to clear Afghanistan of terrorists, but is that a realistic goal?  Is it easier to establish a solid government there that will prevent terrorism, or to invade and wipe out terrorist camps whenever they become a problem?  We had destroyed the camps within months of 9/11; all the rest of the time has been focussed on making Afghanistan safe for the future.

The idea of making the world perfectly safe is characteristic of modern America, where adults often part with the words, "Drive safely," and kids are methodically protected from everything that might possibly cause them physical harm.  It is also, however, characteristic of great empires, which don't like to tolerate unruly border states.  Who wants to allow potential enemies to develope?  It is important, however, to decide what is worth fighting for and what is not.

I hear a lot about "vital American interests" when discussing wars.  What constitutes a vital national interest in Afghanistan?  Is an unstable Afghanistan like to cause an immediate threat to the United States, or is it a place where a threat could develope in the future?  If there are terrorists there, are they really vital threats to America?  Is it better to attack them there, or to protect America's borders?  I'm not sure what the answers are, but these are the questions that we need to ask.

There is one thing that I am sure is a vital American interest, and that is the developement of nuclear arms by Iran.  Any nuclear proliferation is a potential threat, but an Iranian nuclear arsenal is a more serious threat than most.  Not because Iran would be likely to bomb us -- it will be a long time before it has a missile capable of reaching America.  There is the threat of a terrorist sneaking a small nuclear device past customs; I am not sure how likely that is, but I'm sure Iran would not hesitate to use such a weapon against the U.S.  Even without such direct damage, an Iranian nuclear weapon has the potential to lead to nuclear war in the Middle East.  Regardless of which state is targeted, and regardless of whether the U.S. even needs any oil from the Middle East, a nuclear war there would be disastrous.  The other industrial economies of the world, in Europe and Japan, would be crippled without this oil; and the U.S. economy would be crippled without our major trading partners.  We would have a humanitarian and a selfish interest in preventing such a war.

Isolationism is not a bad word.  The United States will spend itself into oblivion if it defines its interests in such a way as to require preventing every possible threat from developing.  That doesn't mean that there aren't steps short of war that can be used to apply pressure to countries to be more co-operative.  It also doesn't mean that there aren't times when war is the best option.  My concern is that we have decided on war, and the goals of our wars, without adequately consideration the limitations of this aspect of policy.

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