“Someday this war’s gonna end.” Lt. Col. Kilgore, Apocalypse Now
Americans have a confused relationship with the wider world. We launched our existence as the first great anti-Imperial movement of the modern era. Now we are the world’s only global military power. Our first President was so insistent that we remain walled up in our own hemisphere that he made that the theme of his farewell address. Five years after that speech we launched our first invasion of an Arab country.
Emerging crises in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Iraq are stirring mixed emotions. We stand alone as the world’s only global military power, but our engagements in the last decade were some of the most humiliatingly absurd in our history. Not only do we lack a public will to take on a new effort abroad, we have lost any conviction that our efforts can have much value.
Those who deny the power of American diplomatic and military engagement to bring positive outcomes in the world are fighting against the tide of history. Those who convince themselves that American military power is always a positive force are making the same mistake. We need to develop a better sense of what kind of involvement can be successful, what success means, and how to place necessary moral and legal bounds on foreign actions. We’ve only been working on this question for about two hundred years, so maybe we’re almost there.
It might be helpful to a walk through a brief inventory of our foreign military efforts to look for characteristics of the more successful engagements. Here’s brief walk through a few of the highlights:
– American expats in Hawaii organized a successful coup against the country’s monarchy in 1893. Hawaii became a US territory in 1898 and a state in 1959.
– In 1898, the US victory over Spain brought three new territories into the United States: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Cuba was turned loose as an independent nation very quickly, but remained a political basket case. American troops returned to the island every few years to tamp down upheavals. That finally ended when the Communists seized control in 1960. Puerto Rico remained a US territory. It has been consistently poor and underdeveloped, but relatively stable and free from organized violence.
– In the Philippines the US established local government very quickly, but maintained oversight from Washington until World War II. There was some initial, minor resistance to US rule, but almost no violence after 1909. The country gained full independence in 1946. It has been a multiparty democracy since 1986.
– The US occupied and controlled Haiti for much of the first half of the 20th century and invaded again in 1994. Both occupations were successful in temporarily dampening violence in the country, but the long term impact was limited.
– The CIA in 1954 overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala. The new military dictatorship launched a genocidal civil war under the auspices of fighting Communism. That war ended in 1996, but the country remains largely ungoverned.
– After World War II, the US military occupied South Korea and the Soviets occupied the North. Both halves of the country declared their independence in 1948. The North invaded the South in 1950. The US led a UN force to a stalemate in a fight against North Korean and Chinese armies. Fighting ended in 1954, but no peace treaty has ever been signed.
– In 1945 the US and Allies replaced the government of West Germany and imposed direct rule until 1955. Berlin remained under allied authority until 1990. The occupation was almost entirely peaceful, without a single allied death attributable to resistance.
– Also in 1945, the US took direct military control over Japan under the leadership of Gen. MacArthur and with the cooperation of the British. The Japanese resumed domestic political control in 1952. Japan became a stable democracy and the region’s economic powerhouse.
– The US Central Intelligence Agency, through covert action, engineered the removal of democratically elected governments in the Congo (1960), South Vietnam (1963 & 1964), Iran (1953), Chile (1973), and the Dominican Republic (1963) to name a few. Chile was relatively stable under a moderately competent dictator and restored democratic leadership in 1989. The others were not so “fortunate.”
– The power vacuum created by the action in Vietnam drew America into a decade long war that devastated both North and South Vietnam. After the US withdrawal, South Vietnam and was invaded and annexed by the North.
– In 1948 the US supported Jose Figueres Ferrer in his armed rebellion to seize control of Costa Rica. He established a liberal government which developed into Latin America’s first stable multiparty democracy. The US decision to offer military support to Costa Rica in 1955 ended an invasion threat from Nicaragua that would have ended the newly demilitarized nation’s independence.
– One of the conditions of the 1978 treaty between Egypt and Israel was that US forces would lead a “peacekeeping” occupation of the Sinai Peninsula after Israel returned it to Egypt. That contingent was organized as an international force and deployed in 1982. US troops remain in the Sinai today, more than double the size of our current contingent in Iraq. There have been no fatalities and only a handful of violent incidents in 30 years.
– Reagan ordered US troops into Beirut in 1983 along with a multi-national stabilization force connected to the evacuation of the defeated PLO from Lebanon. The situation in Lebanon was chaotic and relentlessly violent. The central government could not maintain control of the country. When the US Marine barracks was destroyed by a suicide bomber Reagan made the decision to withdraw US forces rather than escalate the engagement.
– Beginning in 1993, the US began a steadily escalating series of air attacks in Bosnia aimed at halting the genocide there. In 1995 the US led an international occupation of Bosnia under NATO authority. Bosnia is quiet and nominally self-governing under an indefinite international military occupation.
– US forces led a broad alliance in an invasion of Kuwait in 1991. The occupation lasted a few months. Kuwait is stable and the intervention has contributed greatly to the booming economies of the Gulf Emirates.
– US forces entered Somalia late in 1992 to protect a UN aid mission. The government had collapsed, civil war had begun, and famine was killing thousands of Somalis. Our troops were withdrawn in 1993 after surprisingly heavy casualties and a complete failure to restore order.
– A US and NATO bombing campaign over Serbia in 1999 ended Serbian genocide in Kosovo, precipitated the final disintegration of Yugoslavia, and led to the fall of the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo has an independent democratic government, but remains under military occupation.
– US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 to rid the nation of ”weapons of mass destruction” and terminate its weapons programs. The programs and weapons did not exist. The occupation was an unmitigated disaster. The official occupation lasted only a year, but US forces remained. US troops withdrew in 2011 under an agreement signed in 2008, but no functioning central government has emerged. The country has effectively been partitioned into three warring ethnic regions, two of which are dominated fundamentalist militias with ties to international terrorism.
– As conditions in Liberia reached their worst in 2003, American troops landed in Monrovia to secure the embassy. US and British military intervention helped coordinate the collapse of the brutal Taylor regime and smoothed the transition to an elected government.
The outcomes from our military interventions abroad have been entirely mixed. It is hard to deny the worthiness or success of the mission in Bosnia or the miserable failure of Vietnam or Iraq.
Successful US deployments overseas like in the Sinai or Bosnia disappear from the public mind. They are among the most important things we do in the world and hardly anyone knows they’ve happened. Our involvements in the world are not simple. They are not all good or bad.