Commentary

Using Our Military for Others’ Interests

This article originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on January 27, 2005.
President Bush may look forward to liberating foreign lands, but the majority of Americans believe his chief priority should be dealing with Iraq. How long we stay must be decided based on U.S., not Iraqi, interests.

One reason the U.S. military is badly stretched is because Washington continues to maintain garrisons around the globe. Traditional commitments in Asia and Europe have been supplemented by sporadic intervention elsewhere, including the ongoing occupation of Iraq.

America should defend foreign nations and base troops overseas according to its interests, not those of other countries. Unfortunately, U.S. analysts and policy-makers often ignore this fundamental principle. For instance, Frederick Barton, Bathsheba Crocker and Craig Cohen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies propose allowing “the Iraqis themselves” to vote on America’s continued military presence.

That would be fine if the Iraqis said “go.” But them saying “stay” would offer no reason for the United States to stick around. Washington should bear the cost and risk soldiers’ lives only if doing so serves U.S. interests, irrespective of what the Iraqis think.

It’s a common mistake. U.S. officials have routinely said that Washington plans on staying in South Korea as long as the South Koreans want us to stay.

But the Republic of Korea is well able to defend itself. That they prefer to save money by relying on the United States is no justification for America’s security guarantee.

In fact, other nations and peoples routinely expect the United States to serve their interests. When the administration announced last year that it intended to withdraw two armored divisions from Germany, residents in towns hosting the forces complained.

They weren’t worried about, say, a Russian invasion. Rather, they feared losing the cash that U.S. soldiers bring.

Two years ago Icelanders whined when Washington decided to close its air base at Keflavik. Washington reasonably pointed out that there no longer was a Soviet threat to Iceland – which doesn’t even bother to field a military.

However, warned Helgi Agustsson, Iceland’s ambassador to the United States: “September 11th wasn’t supposed to happen either. An enemy always looks for the weakest link.” Petulantly, Prime Minister David Oddsson said that U.S. naval vessels might not be welcome if the United States pulled out its F-15 fighters.

When violence erupted in East Timor, then occupied by Indonesia, in 1999, protesters gathered before America’s embassy in Portugal – East Timor’s one-time colonial master – demanding that Washington intervene. Never mind that Portugal had contributed to the problem and failed to create a military capable of acting.

Equally presumptuous, though for far more understandable reasons, were Liberians in summer 2003. They had suffered decades of conflict and civil war.

Because freed U.S. slaves established Liberia, the West African nation was considered to be Washington’s client. Two decades ago a Senate report concluded: “It is fair to say that in the eyes of other African and Western governments, Liberia’s well-being is an American responsibility.”

Liberians obviously felt the same way. One banner proclaimed at a demonstration in the capital of Monrovia: “Uncle Sam Must Come at Once.” Doug Collier, a relief worker, said that Liberians asked him, “Why doesn’t America come in and save us?”

Although Nigeria sent troops, that wasn’t viewed as enough.

A refugee exclaimed: “We like the Nigerians – but we want some few Americans or British, to help them out and ensure the stability of the country.”

One can understand why Liberians wanted U.S. aid. But American troops are not pawns to be moved about the globe in someone else’s international chess game.

This point befuddles even some of Washington’s closest allies. Complains South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun: “So far, all changes in the size of U.S. troop strength here have been determined by the United States based on its strategic consideration, without South Korea’s consent.”

But upon what does he believe America’s deployments should be based? South Korea’s strategic consideration?

Bringing stability and democracy to Iraq is no mean task. And the United States cannot stay if it is not wanted. But an Iraqi desire that American forces remain is no cause to keep them there.

Even more so, the fact that South Koreans want to be defended, or that Germans enjoy the benefits of spending by American troops, is irrelevant to U.S. policy. America’s force deployments must be based on America’s strategic interests.

The United States is a great and good country. But its military should not be used to fulfill the wishes of others. Only the protection of American interests warrants the sacrifice of American lives.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and James Madison Scholar with the American Legislative Exchange Council.