Tell me about interventionism
June 28, 2016 10:47 AM   Subscribe

In the run-up to the election, I keep seeing debates about whether various candidates (ok, specifically Clinton) are too interventionist. I would like to read more about the subject of interventionism by America, and the various arguments for and against it.

It seems to be taken as a given by many that interventionism is a bad thing (I'm not seeing any counterarguments that certain candidates are not interventionist enough, at least not in the internet circles I run in). But I remember from history classes that isolationism is also often seen as a bad thing. (Of course we're never going to be 100% one or the other, but I guess we're talking trends toward more or less intervention here.)

I don't feel like I know enough about international policy to really take a firm stance on this issue - but clearly I'm expected to!

Basically, what I would like are a few primers on the pros and cons of American interventionism, historically and in the modern day, from a variety of perspectives. When it comes to issues I know very little about, I like to read a bunch of sources written by people who disagree with each other. No straw men please - I want the perspectives of people who really believe what they're saying!

Stuff specifically about Clinton is also fine, but mostly I'm looking for a broader overview.

Mostly I'm after links here, but if you can personally speak to this issue, I'd also welcome your thoughts - but, in case I need to say it, please no arguing with each other in the comments, as I'd like this post to not get deleted!
posted by showbiz_liz to Law & Government (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a discussion of the big picture, but more of a case study: Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile. It was also a movie with Tom Hanks. It is about the CIAs arming and support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 70s. The Cold War lead directly to the state of affairs in the world today.
posted by soelo at 11:02 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

For a strong, articulate, consistent voice from the American right about avoiding far-flung foreign wars, I cannot recommend enough Daniel Larison at The American Conservative. He is one of the few people I still read from my ill-fated attempt to find the American right's answer(s) to the nonfiction prose in The New Yorker.

He constantly, constantly takes Republican and Democratic politicians to task for adventurism, although he spends more time on Republicans, presumably because he is trying to convert members of his own party. His arguments are so well thought out that you can only disagree with him on fundamental assumptions, which is such a relief compared to thinking about Donald Trump or the Tea Party.

The only goofy thing he does is post parts of Eastern Orthodox liturgy on high holy days, which, whatever. He's still on my Feedly.
posted by radicalawyer at 11:03 AM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

For example, he is the only person I've ever seen call out the U.S. for supporting Saudi Arabia's illegal war on Yemen, the developing famine resulting from the blockade there, and indiscriminate use of cluster munitions in civilian areas. If ever there were an argument for the existence of "teh MSM," it's their total failure to cover that story.
posted by radicalawyer at 11:07 AM on June 28, 2016

I really recommend The Pentagon's New Map for a well reasoned and convincing argument for interventionism. (Ultimately, I have very mixed feelings on the book, and I'm not trying to convince you it's right, or wrong. It is a great read with a strong case, however.)
posted by so fucking future at 11:08 AM on June 28, 2016

Although it has an inflammatory title, I think that British Marxist Richard Seymour's The Liberal Defense of Murder is worth reading. Tl;dr: US intervention in the name of doing good is nearly always a proxy for advancing US interests and generally causes far more destabilization and harm than it prevents. Richard Seymour is, IMO, pretty reliable - after some years of reading his blog, I feel like whether you agree with him or not, he says what he means based on the best of his understanding (rather than, for example, omitting things that he believes to be true but that would weaken his argument).

The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America is about US intervention in Latin America and the consequences thereof.

Pinochet and Me, by Marc Cooper - this is a quick read. Cooper is not an especially attractive figure and turned into an apologist for the Iraq War, but this account of his time as one of Allende's translators, his narrow escape during the US-backed coup and his encounters with the US embassy during that time have always stayed with me, and indeed are probably the most deeply felt part of my opposition to US intervention. tl; dr: Serious reformist Allende is overthrown by a US-backed right wing government that tortures and murders its opponents in order to prevent social democracy; the US embassy colludes in the shelling of the presidential palace, winks at Allende's murder and tells US citizens in Chile that they deserve what they get at the hands of the security services. It is a book about why we can't have nice things.
posted by Frowner at 11:24 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

As usual, the gold standard against anti-interventionism is how factually wrong the US Congress was while thwarting FDR's attempts to help the Allies. (Nice summary from Caro's Master of the Senate in a comment by milx here.) Which was partly due to WWI seeming like a war we shouldn't have intervened in.
posted by clew at 12:21 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Interventionism is unpopular in America these days as a result of the Iraq war, which is probably the apex of American interventionism.

In brief, interventionists believe that the United States, mostly but not entirely by virtue of our massive armed forces, has the ability to affect positive change in the larger world (reducing poverty and disease, spreading democracy, enforcing peace, defending human rights, etc.). Some interventionists take it a step further and see this as a moral imperative (similar to how some people believe that if you see a drowning child, you have a moral responsibility to jump in the lake and save him).

Anti-interventionists are a varied bunch. Some are actual isolationists (but not many); some are pacifists who don't believe that wars should be fought for any reason, even a just one; some (e.g. me) challenge the assumption that the US is actually capable of doing these things; some believe the motivations underlying the desire to "help" is actually rather more selfish (e.g. Chomsky); and some (e.g. me again, or Daniel Larison) are concerned about the unintended consequences of intervention. What they have in common is an aversion to interventionist policies (or, more specifically, military interventions - non-military interventions such as foreign aid and the Peace Corps are generally OK by most people).

Historically, interventionism has been associated with liberalism, dating back to the Woodrow Wilson administration. The most notable and successful instance of this was the Marshall Plan and postwar reconstruction of Western Europe. The Cold War made interventionism attractive to both parties as a way to prevent the global spread of Communism. George Kennan's "long telegram" is a good source for more information about this. Alas, anti-communism was sometimes (often?) taken too far. In addition to undesired outcomes like the Vietnam war, there were, delicately speaking, several instances where the CIA overthrew governments and propped up dictators on the basis that the dictators were opposing Communism. See, e.g., Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran, Nicaragua, Zaire, etc. In one of the more notorious examples, the United States sold large quantities of weapons to Osama bin Laden so that he could help repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are literal tons of material about this out there - search for "CIA cold war", "School of the Americas", and the various countries listed above. One of my high school teachers recommended Noam Chomsky's What Uncle Sam Really Wants, which is a good critical introduction to Cold War-era interventionism. Chomsky basically believes that the US intervenes to protect American business interests.

After the Cold War, with no obvious enemy to "defend" against, a bipartisan consensus developed around the idea of humanitarian intervention. Things like Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, the NATO effort to stop the genocide in Bosnia, and the no-fly zones in Iraq after the first Gulf War. As Bill Clinton was president for much of the time between the fall of the USSR and 9/11, he is closely associated with humanitarian intervention. (In fact, one of the big planks of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign was opposition to the humanitarian intervention that had characterized the Clinton years - that was quickly dropped.) On the right, interventionism became one of the primary causes of the so-called neoconservatives. Paul Wolfowitz is most closely associated with this, along with others he worked with in Bush's Pentagon: Douglas Feith, Richard Perle. The magazines Commentary and the Weekly Standard are also closely associated with neoconservative interventionism. After 9/11 (literally, on September 12th, 2001 in Wolfowitz's case), the neoconservatives saw an opportunity, and interventionism became the policy of the Bush administration, leading to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is a good article explaining why some liberals supported those wars.

The, um, lack of success in both Iraq and Afghanistan quickly turned public opinion against interventionism. Anti-war sentiment largely fueled the primary campaign of Howard Dean, and Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008 in no small part because he promised to end the war. He did, but his administration (including Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State in his first term) is still perceived as somewhat interventionist, due in large part to the increase in drone warfare, airstrikes in Libya, and the possibility of sending ground troops back to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.

For more reading, Daniel Larison is by far the leading anti-interventionist on the right. (Most of the others are kind of loony libertarian types, and are best avoided). William Kristol and the late Christoper Hitchens are probably the leading defenders of interventionism. I don't read enough left-leaning media to distinguish individual voices, but Jacobin and Dissent are good magazines, and I'm pretty sure I've come across some good work on the topic there. Chomsky is also quite prolific.

Sorry for writing so much; I'm having a shitty day and writing all this helped me feel better. I hope it's helpful for you.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:05 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

A couple points.

Posing it as interventionist vs. isolationist is misleading, since the US was never really isolationist, and neither are most other states. Its really retrenchment vs. engagement. The best case for retrenchment is "Don't Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment" by Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlford in International Security. The footnotes should be a good resource.

I would caution against Chomsky--he write clearly but effectively opposes to all forms of state power, meaning he isn't part of the conversation that people running for office are part of. And the vast majority of scholarly research on the topic shows that business/corporations/capital/whatever do not want wars and some actively lobby against them.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:30 PM on June 28, 2016

I really recommend The Pentagon's New Map for a well reasoned and convincing argument for interventionism. (Ultimately, I have very mixed feelings on the book, and I'm not trying to convince you it's right, or wrong. It is a great read with a strong case, however.)

I want to second this recommendation. Barnett has written a follow-up volume as well if you find his vision appealing or at least interesting.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:12 PM on June 28, 2016

You might also like the various Munk Centre Debates, which feature two-on-two debates about world politics and foreign policy. The Munk Centre is affiliated with the University of Toronto, but the debates often include high profile Americans.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 9:53 PM on June 28, 2016

I recommended Chomsky because he's a strong voice on the anti-interventionist left. The OP mentioned that she's interested in the topic because of the debates about Hillary Clinton's interventionism. Republicans may hate her, but that's not the reason why. The overwhelming majority of "Hillary is pro-war" rhetoric is coming from the left, mostly from so-called Bernie Bros, and a lot of them are influenced by Chomsky's thought, if not Chomsky directly. You're right that mainstream doesn't pay him a lot of attention, but the people who are bringing up the subject do.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:32 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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