The Invisible Children viral video calling for the capture of Joseph Kony in Uganda has been viewed almost 100 million times in a week, an unprecedented media feat. In Afghanistan, a U.S. staff sergeant killed 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday, nine of whom were children, in an assumed unprovoked attack. Teenagers in Iraq are being killed by militias by the dozens, accused of worshipping the devil, only a fragment of the chaos present since the 2003 U.S. invasion. And the tragic devastation plaguing people in Syria is likely to continue long past its one-year anniversary.
What ties these events together is that each asks questions of the responsibility and the legitimacy of U.S. foreign intervention.
Intervention has become a dirty word in recent years. A debate has long raged over whether states have the right to intervene in the affairs of others and recent issues have reignited the dispute. One side supports the notion of the “Responsibility to Protect,” arguing that societies the world over deserve protection from oppressive regimes or bloody civil conflicts.
Others see intervention as a modern-day form of colonialism, a sentiment directed largely at the United States and its alleged desires for world domination. Critics also point to the failure of past operations and the negative consequences such actions pose for the recipient as well as here at home. Unsuccessful missions such as Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, Somalia and the most recent war in Iraq have further inflamed opposition to such actions.
America’s founders would probably not have imagined that the nation’s philosophy toward global interference would change so drastically. Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton all understood the dangers inherent in foreign involvement and advocated interaction only for the purposes of trade. Even as late as 1821, John Quincy Adams warned against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy,” and that the United States was “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Needless to say, the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, and further military operations in dozens of other instances, has led to the rise of a very different foreign policy today. This view saw its culmination in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War when President Bill Clinton suggested the U.S. had “the solemn responsibility to shape a more peaceful, prosperous, democratic world.” So began the era of humanitarian intervention, a banner under which numerous military operations have been justified in the years since.
Various factors affect the U.S. willingness to bring resolution to major conflicts abroad. The sitting president inevitably plays a role although Republicans and Democrats alike have contributed to their fair share of missions (particularly since the Clinton years). Perhaps a more prominent influencing factor is the U.S. success in efforts occurring shortly before the one in question. The United States was heavily criticized for not intervening in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Among several reasons for this decision, a major factor was America’s recent failure in nearby Somalia in 1992, and its hesitance to engage in another mission that could be lengthy, costly and ultimately unsuccessful.
Likewise, President Barack Obama finds himself with similar constraints as he is faced with the crisis in Syria, a potentially nuclear Iran and domestic pressure to seek the capture of Joseph Kony in Uganda. The international community and the American people are largely wary of another U.S. intervention following long and messy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the capture of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil was not received well by all, and the U.S. role in NATO’s intervention of Libya last year was opposed by many, including Russia and China, both of which have attempted to prevent the same taking place in Syria.
The president will inevitably be aware of the dangers inherent in unilateral action, yet failure by the U.N. to resolve current pressing issues leaves the future uncertain. The U.S. can ill-afford to finance another major conflict nor does it have the political capital with others to justify it.
The people of Syria and other crisis locations are the biggest losers in this situation. Thousands are dying as the world stands idly by, fearing the domestic and international repercussions of getting involved. Without doubt, intervention is a complex and controversial matter and the U.S. has a less than stellar record of its employment. Yet, until international consensus can be achieved on humanitarian crises, the Joseph Konys and Bashar al-Assads of the world have little incentive to cease their atrocities.
(Editor’s Note: Timothy J.A. Passmore is a visiting lecturer of political science at Lee University. His “Your World Today” column appears in the Wednesday edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.)