To Intervene or Not to Intervene

By Langan, John; Williams, Kale | The Christian Century, January 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

To Intervene or Not to Intervene


Langan, John, Williams, Kale, The Christian Century


CHRIS GALECZKA, an eighth-grader from Sterling Heights, Michigan, won the recent National Geography Bee by correctly identifying as Afghanistan a Central Asian country in which Pashtu and Dari are the main languages. Chris's geographical knowledge leaves him well ahead of most of the citizens and policymakers who must decide whether we should intervene in conflicts in little-understood and deeply troubled places. Afghanistan, of course, is a place where the United States did intervene by providing covert assistance to rebel groups in the years after the 1979 Soviet invasion. There the U.S. was able to support national independence and weaken the Soviet Union and its expansionism. Though we neither established a stable government nor eliminated the grievous sufferings of the Afghan people, within the parameters of the cold war the intervention was successful. It roused little public criticism or controversy even though it began less than five years after our departure from Vietnam.

Afghanistan illustrates some key aspects of intervention as it was practiced before 1989. Intervention was primarily an episode in the cold war, to be assessed mainly for its impact on the superpowers. The contest of the superpowers, which ranged from Cuba to Angola, from Berlin to Baghdad, from Vietnam to the skies over Sakhalin, ensured that struggles in remote areas were seen as affecting our national interests and security. even though very few people thought that the fall of Saigon jeopardized San Francisco or that the crushing of the Afghan rebels would prevent future sales of Pepsi in Kabul or Moscow. Intervention was carried on with a presumption of domestic support and with little effort to search for a broad international consensus, since such a consensus was not obtainable in a bipolar, adversarial world. Its principle objectives were to frustrate Soviet expansionism and to drain Soviet resources. That U.S. intervention be limited in scope was particularly important after Vietnam and after the fall of the shah's regime in neighboring Iran.

The collapse of the one power capable of sustained and massive hostilities against the United States and the eruption of numerous local conflicts in and around the borders of the former communist world have produced a new set of attitudes and questions about intervention. First, there is no general basis for linking various local disputes to U.S. interests. Second, as the shift in public opinion with regard to Somalia made plain, there is no politically reliable domestic consensus for anything more than providing immediate humanitarian relief. Politicians are more likely to exploit failures in the execution of interventionist policies for partisan advantage than to support a worthwhile but precarious effort to help divided and tormented societies.

Third, the natural basis of political support for intervention has shifted in a significant way. Republicans and conservative Democrats were historically ready to support military interventions if these were presented as required by our national security, and they understood national security along the expansive lines appropriate to the superpower struggle. Especially after the Vietnam period, Democrats on the left became progressively more skeptical about such cold-war justifications. But those are the Democrats who are most likely to respond to universalistic appeals for humanitarian intervention--appeals that stress the vulnerability of victims and the bonds of human solidarity without relying on considerations of national interest specified in economic and military terms. As a result, many of those who supported interventionist actions and attitudes when these formed part of the struggle against communism are now critical of intervention aimed at humanitarian, nation-building or order-establishing objectives. On the other hand, people who were critical of such earlier U.S. military interventions as Grenada because they reflected an imperially expansive view of U. …

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