The toughest issue in foreign policy is when, where and how to intervene in the affairs of other countries — and when to walk away. Given America’s role as a global leader, the question arises for U.S. leaders again and again.
We tend to think first of military intervention, but there are multiple ways to intervene, including political, diplomatic and economic interventions. Almost every such decision is hard and consequential.
An initial decision, often slighted, is what are the American interests? Then, what are our objectives, and how do those objectives serve the national interest? Also, what resources are required, and are the benefits worth the costs? What are the possible consequences, including unanticipated consequences?
To complicate matters, these decisions cannot be made in isolation. When the United States intervenes, it affects our relationships with allies and adversaries. With our great military and economic power, it’s often tempting to take a damn-the-torpedoes, full speed-ahead attitude. But that approach is premature and often mistaken. Those figurative torpedoes can do real damage, and have large consequences, some predictable, some not.
In analyzing the case for and against intervention, I’ve often asked myself if I would be willing to pay the price that our military and other personnel might pay. Would I be willing to sacrifice my life or risk being wounded for our objectives? In that context, the decision can be agonizing.
There’s a tendency in the national security establishment to suggest that they know best when and how to intervene, implying that the rest of us should simply defer to them. And it sometimes seems the American people have grown to take these intervention decisions for granted. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for more than 18 years, the longest war in our history. The second Iraq War was another one of our longest, as is our fight against terrorism.
Conflicts have been so frequent and extended that we often accept the heavy costs without much deliberation.
In Afghanistan, we invaded after 9/11 and quickly overthrew the Taliban. But the mission evolved to include creating democracy, propping up the government, supporting the military, even nation-building. That war has thus far cost the United States over $700 billion, more than 2,000 lost lives and over 20,000 casualties.
So, projections about how wars will play out can miss the mark. Wars can last longer than expected and lead to unanticipated commitments.
Paying attention to public attitudes toward intervention is important, but this can be trickier than it seems. Initially, the American public will usually support decisions by their leaders to intervene abroad. But political support often fades as the costs of war drag on.
The Vietnam War is a classic example. Remembered today as misguided and unpopular, the war had strong support for several years. But that changed as casualties mounted, military operations stalled, and prominent figures, such as Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas, questioned U.S. policy. I was in Congress at the time, and, almost month by month, you could see support for the war declining.
Americans began to see that spending money on the war left much less for other priorities. During Vietnam, they thought of all the resources that could have gone to health care, education and other needs, if not for the war. Many asked policy makers the questions that I posed at the start of this column. What were our objectives in Vietnam? What U.S. interests were being served? What were the costs in lives and money?
So, when we make these decisions to intervene, our leaders need to justify their decisions, explain the vital interests at stake, and be forthcoming about the objectives, the costs and risks. These decisions have heavy and costly consequences, and they should be made with the greatest care, deliberation and transparency.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.