For those with memories that exceed the half-life of a midyear election cycle, there was a tinny ring to gripes from lawmakers and pundits about how President Obama was dragging the nation into a war with no vital interests at stake. Foreign policy specialists like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have insisted there is nothing in Libya worth a major U.S.-led military operation. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, meanwhile, has written that Libya’s proximity to core U.S. interests is “tangential at best.”
Spot on, but so what?
Here’s the dirty little secret about U.S. foreign policy: The United States has not committed its troops to protect a core security interest since the end of World War II. Korea? Months before North Korea’s invasion of its southern neighbor, Secretary of State Dean Acheson signaled that the east Asian peninsula was not a U.S. priority. James Forrestal, among the most hawkish of President Truman’s advisers, had declared South Korea to be “more a liability than an asset,” and he opposed basing American troops there. Even after the invasion, foreign policy elites from CIA Director Bedell Smith to Paul Nitze, the State Department’s hardline director of policy planning, were counseling a negotiated truce and withdrawal.
It was domestic politics—the fear of being attacked by McCarthyists as being soft on communism—not strategic imperative, that compelled Truman to enjoin and sustain a conflict that simmers unresolved to this day. The same is true of America’s role in Vietnam, which was militarized by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson despite their doubts about the wisdom of waging another war in Asia. As an irate Johnson asked an aide in May 1964: “What the hell is Vietnam to me? And what the hell is Vietnam to the country?” It was a fair question obscured by the din of beltway demagoguery.
The end of the Cold War only fueled America’s proclivity to involve itself in blood-letting of oblique relation to national security. The dust-up in Libya represents the 23rd time the United States has waged war since the collapse of the Soviet Union, compared with the 14 conflicts it entered while the Berlin Wall stood. The Cold War doctrine of deterrence—fight your enemies overseas so you won’t have to fight them at home—has become less a means to an end than an end in itself.
Take the Persian Gulf, for example. The geopolitical vortex that has consumed so much in the way of American lives and treasure has endured four major wars since 1981, three of which were led by Washington. Only one—the so-called Tanker Wars of the mid-1980s, in which U.S. warships escorted tanker ships through the Strait of Hormuz in the face of Iranian harassment—yielded a dividend worthy of the outlay. The 1991 sequel restored a corrupt Kuwaiti monarchy and was followed by 10 years of Anglo-American aerial patrols over northern and southern Iraq, a debilitating and inconclusive affair that ended only with Gulf War 4.0, the outcome of which is all too familiar. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]
In 1999, standing alongside U.S. troops beneath the wing of an F-16 fighter jet, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that Washington was “reaffirming NATO’s core purpose as a defender of democracy, stability, and human decency” by leading a sustained bombing campaign against Serbs marauding their Kosovan neighbors. (In fact, NATO was a defensive alliance created to deter a Soviet attack against Western Europe; the allied action against Serbia would be an offensive war of choice.) When nearly three weeks of aerial bombardment failed to end the violence, it took Russian mediation to finally bring the Serbs to heel.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. forces have fanned out across the globe, often furtively and in the embrace of allies whose interests and ours overlap on an exclusively tactical level, in pursuit of radical Islamists whose animus against America is as well known as their capacity has been exaggerated. We were told the “terrorists” were going to restore the caliphate from the Gibraltar Strait to the Hindu Kush, when it turns out the real battle for the soul of the Arab-Muslim world was between secularists: liberal revolutionaries on one side, and tyrants on the other. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.]
America is a strange country. Alone among continental powers, it resides comfortably and securely between two friendly neighbors and two vast oceans that no rival has the means to navigate in any threatening way. It is financially secure, thanks to the pleasure of its creditors, and the burden of its security is born by a tiny fraction of the population. Yet for the sake of control—of the sea lanes and the air corridors above it, as well as energy resources and cyberspace—it intervenes on behalf of regional powers that ought to bear the responsibility for peace and stability beyond their borders, yet instead become free riders of Washington’s imperium. There was a time when empires demanded tribute from their dependencies. In the case of American hegemony, it is the other way around. Why is that?