Commentary

Remake the World in America’s Image?

“A nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not. Our military is meant to fight and win war. That’s what it’s meant to do and when it gets overextended, morale drops.” That was candidate George W. Bush in his October 11, 2000 debate with then-Vice President Gore. Today President George W. Bush has a different view. He’s contemplating sending 2,000 troops to Liberia on a humanitarian mission that has nothing to do with American national security.

Revisiting that two-year-old presidential debate is instructive. In it, Bush declared his opposition to President Clinton’s “nation-building” intervention in Haiti and said, “I’m not so sure that the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be.” Bush promised that, as president, his “guiding question” when it comes to U.S. foreign intervention would be “is it in our nation’s interests?”

Is intervention in Liberia “in our nation’s interests”? Only if those interests are defined so broadly as to divorce them from any relationship to American national security. The president has offered our “unique history” with Liberia as a justification, and his national security adviser has declared that the stability of West Africa is “vital” to progress on a continent to which the president has “devoted a lot of time and energy.”

No doubt pacifying Liberia would make the world a better place. But that by itself should not be sufficient reason to risk American blood and treasure. Unfortunately, making the world a better place, rather than defending America, threatens to become a guiding principle of American foreign policy.

Even the Iraq war, sold to the American people as a national security imperative, morphed quickly into “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” As evidence that Iraq had the means or the inclination to attack us has failed to surface, the administration has accordingly leaned ever more heavily on the benefits the war brought to the Iraqi people. And the president’s National Security Strategy, issued in September 2002, sets goals that go far beyond preserving liberty at home, proclaiming that “the United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe.” The late Michael Kelly identified the driving force behind the Bush policy as “armed evangelism” for “the freedom of men.”

Liberia is hardly the only spot on the globe where freedom is in short supply. If the bare fact of oppression is enough to justify military action, then the American public should gird itself for permanent war. In Africa, and the world at large, there’s suffering enough to keep our troops busy indefinitely.

Armed evangelism may aim at the freedom of men, but it’s a serious departure from the ideals of the American Founding. The Constitution of 1789 empowered Congress to create an Army for “the common defense” of Americans, not of the world at large. Still less did the Framers contemplate a military engaged in an eternal campaign of armed altruism.

Early American foreign policy rejected the notion that the U.S. military should help spread liberty abroad. America refused material assistance to the nascent Latin American republics seeking to throw off the shackles of the Spanish Empire in the first decades of the 19th Century. “The destiny of these provinces must depend on themselves,” explained James Monroe in 1811. The United States would fight when honor and neutral rights were at stake, as in the War of 1812, but she would not go to war to make others free. John Quincy Adams summed up our guiding principle in his July 4, 1821 address to the House of Representatives: America is “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Today that principle finds few friends in either party. Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who has based his campaign on opposition to the Iraq war, recently endorsed sending troops to Liberia. “The situation in Liberia is significantly different from the situation in Iraq,” Dean said. Yes, it is. With Iraq, one could at least argue that national security was implicated. But Liberia is strategically insignificant to the United States. For Dean, it seems, the fact that there’s nothing at stake for America is proof of our nobility of purpose, and an argument for intervention.

But there’s little nobility in a policy that risks American soldiers for high-minded causes unrelated to American security. Candidate Bush had it right in the 2000 presidential debates. The U.S. military’s purpose is to defend Americans — not to remake the world in America’s image.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.