Against American interventionism
By Clancy Sigal, Friday 11 March 2011 22.00 GMT
I believe in adequate defence at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6% over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100%. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
– Major General Smedley Butler, winner of two medals of honour
In old westerns, you always knew the bad guys were up to no good when the Apache drums began beating a war signal. Today, our faithful friends on the right and “interventionist left” are at it again over Libya. They – Senators Lieberman and McCain and the formerly antiwar John Kerry, and the usual suspects among the neocons and up-and-coming cons or retreads like Newt Gingrich – can’t wait to shed anyone’s blood except their own. What is it about politicians, including good-hearted, compassionate liberals, who love a jolly good gruesome invasion now and then?
President Obama is being attacked for his slow, mealy-mouthed “cowardly response” to the rebel uprising in North Africa. True, his language, as so often, is hardly calculated to send us to the barricades. “We must take all the various equities into account,” he blandly cautioned against a too-hasty intervention in someone else’s revolution. Hardly the bugle call of a General Patton or even Dick Cheney.
But hooray for Obama. This one time.
I come from the American Midwest where so-called isolationism once held a powerful grip on popular opinion. Senators like Wisconsin’s Bob La Follete and Montana’s William Borah and the unconquerable Representative Jeannette Rankin were elected to “keep us out of war”. Indeed, FDR secured his third presidential term only on a promise that “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars”. In my fitth grade school classroom, a photograph hung on the wall of a living first world war soldier with his face blown away from nose bridge to chin, leaving a bloody, gaping hole – an antiwar statement that no Chicago parent, child or buttinsky objected to.
It’s always the same old story, isn’t it? A fiendish tyrant brutalises the defenceless people cowering under his dictatorial lash. The Lone Ranger to the rescue! Or as the arch-war criminal Henry Kissinger once remarked, “Americans like the cowboy … who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else … This amazing, romantic character suits me.”
Then, there are places like Sarajevo and Rwanda where well-meant military intervention came late or hardly at all, costing many lives. What does one do in the face of mass murder or genocide? More specifically, in Libya, which begs to become another Fallujah or Kandahar for us.
For four years, in the 1990s, Serb and Croatian gunmen besieged multiracial Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, and engaged in mass killings seen nightly on TV. My California friends and I were so moved that we helped organise medical supplies into the city, and when Nato soldiers at last flew in to stop the slaughter, I invited a couple of the Bosnian survivors to my home. I might not have been so enthusiastic for military intervention if I had predicted Iraq and Afghanistan (not to speak of Mogadishu). Sending in our soldiers to shoot anti-Muslim murderers saved Muslims’ and others’ lives in Sarajevo; and I’m proud that the medicine we sent may have helped the wounded and dying.
We now know that bold military action to “save” an oppressed people can lead to utter catastrophe for all parties. There is no such thing as a surgical, clean, no-consequences military operation, despite all the assurances beforehand. Inevitably, we end up killing the wrong people and lying about it. You know the game is up when our deeply opportunistic defence secretary Robert Gates, his cynical eye on retirement and a Bob McNamara-style self-purification, tells army cadets “any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” As Gates slams the office door shut behind him.
Sure, let’s impose a no-fly zone over Tripoli. Then comes the urgent necessity to protect our Awacs and fighter planes; then comes urgent need for a stable air base and a surge of soldiers to protect it against malcontents with AK-47s; then comes …
Matt Damon, one of my favourite actors and an avowedly leftish movie star who produced a TV version of Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History, recently announced his disappointment in Obama. “I no longer hope for audacity,” Damon laments.
Listen, Matt: maybe, in this case, audacity is the last thing we want from our commander-in-chief.