Interventionism Run Amok

US President Barack Obama in Miami, March 4, 2011.

From Celeste Ward Gventer, Foreign Policy:  Obama has just declared preventing mass atrocities to be a "core national security interest" of the United States. Americans, watch your wallets. . . .

Last Thursday, Aug. 4, the White House released the Presidential Study Directive (PSD) on Mass Atrocities (PSDs are used to initiate policy reviews and direct organizational and other activities by government agencies). The new directive’s opening line declares, "Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." Ornamented with the obligatory Beltway platitudes (another "whole of government" approach is needed here, naturally), the directive establishes an interagency "Atrocities Prevention Board" and directs an interagency study to, among other things, help define and develop the board.

No one would dispute the desirability of averting genocide. But the release of this directive, its ambitious opener, and the broader initiative are all strangely discordant with current realities. It appears to be part of a larger trend to make humanitarian intervention a national security priority. Such a move at this moment in history, while perhaps morally commendable, seems strategically quixotic. . . .

This leads to the second problem with the administration’s new initiative: It risks becoming little more than the latest justification for continual U.S. interventionism. The country is entering a difficult period of austerity, and the president has called for a focus on "nation-building here at home." America’s real and enduring financial woes are obvious; even China is taking this moment to lecture the United States on its "addiction to debts." A vanishingly small segment of the population has been deployed to two wars for nearly a decade at a cost of more than 6,000 dead, more than 42,000 wounded, and somewhere north of $2 trillion spent. The results of this investment are, at best, mixed. Now seems like a good time for "bringing our foreign policy home. . . ."

At best, the likely result of this activity is the appearance that the administration is "doing something" about mass atrocities. At worst, it could become a justification for perpetual American activism, all at the expense of the public, the tiny minority of military service members and their families, and the country’s strategic welfare. Here the administration might best heed the advice of historian Walter McDougall, "To preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one."

Celeste Ward Gventer is associate director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin. She is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and political-military advisor in Iraq.  (photo: Getty)

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