The Interventionist Bias (on Both the Left and Right)

Over at Reason today, I have more to say (beyond here and here) about recent goings on in Iraq and Syria, and the debate over what, if anything, the United States might have done, or might do now, to change things.

As I note:

some commentators insist that the current chaos is a direct result of President Obama’s reluctance to intervene decisively in the multi-year conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Most notably, Obama’s own former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, suggested that Obama’s failure to aid the Syrian rebels led to the rise of [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Clinton claims “that the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” Inherent in that statement is the belief that there was a cadre of relatively liberal-minded opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime inside of Syria, and that American support would have been the decisive factor in ensuring that they would triumph over both Assad and the ISIL extremists. By this logic, if the United States had chosen to arm the “correct” anti-Assad rebels in Syria, we would not now be bombing ISIL in Iraq.

But experts, including George Washington University’s Marc Lynch, aren’t so sure. Others question how “moderate” some of the so-called moderates really are. Indeed, many so-called moderates, in turns out, are just “Caliphate, later” people. That is, unlike their “Caliphate, now” brethren, they are willing to use U.S. support to overthrow Assad. Once his regime is defeated, however, many will fight to implement an extremist government, one that is likely to be a thorn in the side of their regional neighbors, as well as the United States. That explains, in part, why we are now fighting in Iraq at least some of the people who we trained in Syria, And yet, the interventionist bias—do something—remains pervasive inside the Washington Beltway.

Ironically, many of the same people who are skeptical of government intervention to deal with domestic problems seem to believe that that same government can somehow cure the ills of other nations. This cognitive dissonance reflects what Michael Munger calls a “unicorn” government: “a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it.”

Even if the advocates for U.S. military intervention—on both the left and the right—find that magical, mystical state, they must also show that the problem in question can’t be handled by others, or by nonmilitary means. Just because we have the ability to do something doesn’t mean that we should, or must, do it, nor does it mean that military intervention would improve the situation.

Here, again, some on the right have departed dramatically from their intellectual forefathers who advised that “masterly inactivity” is often preferable to action for action’s sake. Calvin Coolidge advised against the impulse to preemptively deal with any possible problem, no matter how distant. “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you have to battle with only one of them.”

This is particularly sage advice for the United States, a nation with blessed geography and great wealth, and one that has a robust nuclear arsenal and an unrivaled military that is sufficient to deter any nation wishing to attack us directly. Thus the burden of proof for U.S. military intervention should fall on those making the case for action, not those advising against.

So far at least, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The interventionists are still winning.