Commentary

National Interest Alone

Roger Carstens offers an impassioned, but ultimately misguided, prescription for humanitarian intervention: first in Liberia, and, by extension, in every country in the world where tyrants rule, or where terrorists might operate.

While I cannot speak to the emotions of being prepared to conduct a mission in Rwanda in 1994, and of the stomach-wrenching experience of watching the slaughter of thousands unfold on television, I can speak (as a former military officer) of the emotions of long separation from family and friends. I have therefore opposed dubious missions that do not advance the vital national-security interests of the United States. Nothing that Major Carstens has written causes me to waver from that course.

Let me respond to his main arguments point by point: 1) I know of no such thing as a human-rights imperative for the U.S. government. I know that the U.S. Constitution empowers the federal government to provide for the common defense, and that it grants Congress the power to declare war, and responsibilities as commander-in-chief to the president. Private organizations, religious institutions, and even well-meaning individuals may feel compelled to aid others in need, and they should be free to do so. But the U.S. federal government has no such responsibility.

2) The removal of Charles Taylor might promote regional stability, but it is equally likely to contribute to regional decay. It is true that Taylor has sponsored rebel groups fighting against the governments in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. But we have no idea who will replace Taylor. Might it be a rebel leader sponsored by Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast? Might it be a rebel leader committed to destabilizing both of those countries, and neighboring Guinea, as well? Taylor is an odious criminal. But to assume that the individual who replaces him will implement a fundamental restructuring of Liberian relations with West African states is an enormous leap of faith that is not supported by historical evidence.

3) The timing is, most certainly, not right. Just ask the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division extended, yet again, in Iraq. Ask the tens of thousands of reservists called to active duty to police America’s sprawling humanitarian empire, from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq. Our military is stretched to the breaking point at a time when we should be focused on the one genuine threat facing us today: Al Qaeda. We spend more on our military than all of the other wealthy nations of the world combined, but we maintain a relatively small number of men and women in uniform. If we continue to divert them away from the defense of vital national-security interests, it will become more and more difficult to maintain our highly professional all-volunteer force, which is, rightly, the most respected military in the world.

4) A U.S.-led intervention would send the wrong message to Africa. It would, once again, absolve African nations of their responsibility to deal with threats, both internal and external. In this respect, the proposed Liberian intervention, the $15 billion AIDS initiative, and the Millennium Challenge Accounts are all related: They constitute a set of misguided policies that do little to reward political and economic reform that might ultimately lead to self-sufficiency. Poverty, disease, and violence go hand-in-hand. The best way to break this cycle in Africa, and throughout the developing world, is to encourage economic development through enlightened trade and development policies that reward individual initiative and private enterprise.

5) The Liberian intervention is a dangerous distraction away from the al Qaeda threat. Taylor’s ties to al Qaeda are tenuous, at best. He may know network operatives. But if guilt by association is to be the threshold for deciding to launch a military intervention, then we have a long list of targets. We might begin with the several rebel leaders poised to take control of Liberia following Taylor’s departure.

6) This intervention may be technically in line with the Bush National Security Strategy, but if it is, it reveals that that strategy has little to do with protecting American security. For example, Carstens points approvingly to the strategy’s stated aim to “make the world not just safer but better.” This phrase gives me the chills. Better by whose standards? At what cost? For how long?

Carstens alleges that a Liberian intervention would reflect the values celebrated on the Fourth of July. I am at pains to find even a single statement from any of our Founders to support that claim. Washington and Jefferson both admonished us to avoid entangling ourselves in the affairs of foreign powers. Jefferson protégé James Monroe declared in the famous doctrine that bears his name that the United States would concern itself only with events in the Western Hemisphere. The single best statement of the original intent of our Founders with respect to foreign policy, however, came not from a Founder, per se, but from a Founder’s son. On July 4, 1821, John Quincy Adams declared, “America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion only of her own.”

Any national-security strategy that departs from this wise advice is not in keeping with the principles of July 4, 1776, but is rather more like the disastrous policies of 1919, following World War I, when Woodrow Wilson pledged to make the world safe for democracy. Our political leaders should be focused on making our democracy safe from the world, not the other way around.

The unfortunate events in Liberia pose no threat to our national security. Military intervention is, therefore, unwarranted and unwise.

Christopher Preble is the director of foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.