I’m becoming an isolationist after all

June 14, 2013

I was in junior high and high school during the Vietnam War. In fact, I was in the last group that was a part of the draft lottery. My birthday was drawn # 322 – nobody forgets what his was. I remember being very upset when the last mad dash was made out of Saigon. I also remember being extremely disappointed in President Nixon for resigning. I think he had had enough, and even after doing what he could to get us out of that mess, he knew the rest of his second term would be all about the Watergate scandal.

I believed at the time, and I still pretty much believe, that we were right in trying to help the South Vietnamese people defend themselves against the North. Unfortunately, I think many of them came to hate us more than the North Vietnamese, and the political and diplomatic ball was dropped so many times it became impossible to be effective. And China and North Vietnam had seen the stalemate that was Korea, and they knew that, even though we went into World War II to kick ass and get out, if they could wait it out and seed enough discontent, they might win the day.

And they did.

I still believe that we should encourage “liberal democracies” all across the world. (Not as in our liberals, but the true meaning of the term.) I guess I mean that we should encourage people to have the right to personal freedom, the rule of law, and self-determination. If we believe rule by tyrants is not morally acceptable, then we should assist other peoples in removing their tyrants and become self-determining. George W. Bush was quite taken by a little book by Natan Sharansky called The Case for Democracy. Sharansky points out that democracies, particular capitalist democracies, do not make war upon one another. I recall that Condoleeza Rice recommended the book to W, and he became a true believer – and that this helped drive his efforts to remake Iraq into a democratic country.

The jury is still out on that one. Iraq had a particular problem besides Islam, which does not fit well within a liberal democracy. It really should be three countries based on its religious and ethnic groups. Holding those three groups together in one country could be very difficult in the long term. It probably wasn’t the best test case for Sharansky’s theory, but it was what was available at the time.

The greater question is, how much do we do to help a people obtain self-determination? Do we covertly aid rebel groups fighting a tyrannical government? (For example, the Iran-Contra affair.) Do we provide air strikes  and armor and take out the government, forcing “regime change”? (As in Iraq.) Do we just provide intelligence and information? Do we provide covert assassins?

Then, of course, conflicts that begin out of a way to help a group of people who are being oppressed can backfire. (See “Arab Spring.”) Sometimes it is difficult to see one group in a conflict that is more moral, or more democratic-minded, than the other. (See Africa in general, and South and Central America.) The Shah of Iran was considered a pretty tyrannical leader, but can it honestly be said that he was worse than what followed? And we don’t really have control of that, do we. (See Iraq, again.)

Then there is Afghanistan. I confess that as I started to write this piece I realized I wasn’t really sure what our objectives are in Afghanistan. To root out Al Qaeda, sure. But we are leaving the local warlords in place, pretty much, and we have devote ten years and an awful lot of lives and treasure in what seems to be a futile effort. No outside country has ever been able to conquer that rockpile, including the Soviets, who worked pretty hard at it. And the most damaging thing Afghanistan can do to the US is continue to grow opium poppies, so they can ship heroin here, and we don’t destroy those fields because the poor folks there would lose their cash crop. What?

Today’s announcement that The Current Occupant of the White House has decided that a leader can kill over 90,000 of his own people, but he’d better do it conventionally, not by using poison gas. That puts him over the line and we have to step in. But we’re going to step in by what, again? Sending an unspecified number of arms (kinds of arms also unspecified) to a rebel organization, which is itself a shadowy outfit.

Now, I’m no fan of the UN. If I was President one of my top ten things to do on my first day in office would be to kick that bunch of whiners out of New York. But we’er opening ourselves to a lot of criticism for openly arming a rebel organization against a recognized sovereign government.

But we’ve done that before and we’ll probably do it again. And I don’t think it will tip the scales, one way or another. And if it does, and the new government of Syria is of a fundamentalist Islamic nature, I doubt they will be thankful of our help for one minute. (See Libya. See Egypt. Oh, hell, see Bosnia.)

Maybe this time the aid will be limited, and no Americans will set foot there, and we won’t move a carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean to bomb the hell out of anybody. (After all, we have that sequester, which means no tours of the White House and the Sixth Fleet doesn’t burn any gas.)

But don’t count on it. Obama has shown himself to be unpredictable in military matters, and if things get really hairy in the Middle East – even more than they are now – he might be tempted to be the Great Intervener.

I’ve become of a mind that if US interests aren’t threatened, leave these people the hell alone. Afghanistan is NOT someplace we should send our young people to die. Neither is Damascus. US interests are not being served in either place. (Want to do something real about Al Qaeda? Go talk to our “friends,” the Saudis. They have far more to do with that bunch than any two-bit warlord in the mountains of Afghanistan.)

The only real US interest in the Middle East is Israel, and Obama has been running away from them as fast as he can for the past five years. He is unlikely to intervene if Iran decided to really go after Israel, and I have a feeling that if their backs are against the wall, the Israelis can take care of themselves. You can’t live your whole life surrounded by people who want to kill you and not have an end-game plan.

And bet on it, the leadership in Israel is not stupid. These are tough guys who will make the tough decisions when they need to, and they’ve been gaming these scenarios for fifty years.

But they might have to turn Tehran into green glass to do it. They wouldn’t want to, but if it came to “us or them,” I think they wouldn’t hesitate. Like I said, tough guys. Serious tough guys.

So I’m turning more libertarian all the time, I guess. That includes getting out of places in the world where we aren’t wanted and where we are gaining nothing.  Cutting the military? Then pull ’em back and use them for defense, not “power projection.” Let somebody else be the world’s policeman. Let’s see how that works out.

I think if I had a child who was killed while serving in the US military in Afghanistan I would be more than heartbroken, not just for the loss of a child, but that he or she was lost for nothing…a patriotic American lost because of misguided politicians who seem to have little concern for the lives of our military men and women.

I know that makes me sound like one of those anti-war folks during the Vietnam War, but I’m not blaming the soldiers. I would never do that. But they are far too often put in harm’s way for no good reason, and I think it is becoming more evident every day that trying to police the world, and losing blood and treasure to defend the ungrateful is the height of stupidity.

I never thought I would feel this way. But I’ve watched this too many times. I’m tired of hearing of young men and women dying for no reason that can be explained to their families. But I have absolutely no idea how to go about changing this situation.



  1. great blog! following you 🙂


  2. It’s wiser to promote democracies with aid than with direct or indirect military action. Roads, schools and hospitals are much cheaper than bombers and tanks and, while the immediate effects are more subtle, in 20 years they’ll be undeniable. Also, remember that a vow to deny support to any non-democratic government would end strategic relationships with half the Middle East and strain your energy supplies.

    • I agree with you, to a certain extent. A talk show host in Chicago said during the Iraq intervention that if we just would drop a couple of Costcos on them, the people would switch gears in a minute. He was only half-joking. Folks in these countries are being told that democracy is the way to go, and then they get Egypt – rule by a powerful elite that little of the people’s best interests at heart. (And yes, I get the irony of that statement re the US today.)

      Trouble is, warlords are pretty capable of stopping the hospitals, roads and schools and diverting the funds we send unless we go in and build them ourselves. It worked better in places like Pakistan – I knew a guy 20 years ago who went from hospital to hospital in places like that as an administrator to teach the local folks how to run it. I don’t think I can compare Pakistan to Afghanistan, but I agree that if we are going to spend money, let’s find a way to help the folks so they don’t need to grow poppies to survive. But that brings us back to the warlords who run things…

      • If you build (and you have to build it yourselves, using local help under close supervision in order to maximize the PR benefit) hospitals, roads and schools and the warlords go against you, it’s morally justifiable to go after them with full force and with some local support.

        One of the worst sins of US foreign policy is the betrayal of the values the US was build upon for convenience. Enabling despots in exchange for support always comes back to bite you in the end, so, it’s wiser to avoid it altogether and lead by example. When confronted with a choice between the easy thing and the right thing, a country should never pick the first.

      • I agree. Trouble is, diplomats keep saying “politics is the art of the possible” to justify the shortcuts they tend to take. Notice how many times the news folks talked about who was “in control” in Egypt? Why do we seem to be happier there is some kind of strongarmed law enforcement in unstable countries? We don’t want to be controlled – at least most of us don’t, I think – but we expect other countries to be stable, by force if necessary.

        The other advantage to keeping the warlords in control, from a diplomatic standpoint, is that there are fewer people to appease or control to get you what you want – say, space for a military base. Is it morally right to support the leadership in Saudi Arabia, since it is well known that they support and train a substantial number of the Islamic militant terrorists in the world? Yet we do, and I don’t think it’s just for the oil. I keep hearing that the Saudis provide a “stabilizing presence” in the Middle East. But then, Europe and the US – especially Great Britain – are more responsible for the craziness in the Middle East than the people who live there. Who drew the lines dividing the Middle East into those countries? Winston Churchill, (who I otherwise admire a lot) when he was Colonial Secretary in the 1920s. A country like Iraq shouldn’t even exist with three major religious and cultural groups forced to live together. And after WWI the folks the Brits put in charge of territories there, like the Saudi royal family, weren’t necessarily the right guys to place in power. (Re Lawrence of Arabia)

        But then I am a proponent of letting Iraq break up into two or three smaller countries. Why did we not promote that when the Kurds showed their support during the Gulf War? Do we need another Czechoslovakia?

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