A recent article on The Strategist argued that the US needs to ‘turn down the heat’ by taking advantage of opportunities to ‘arrest deteriorating situations (like Iraq and Ukraine).’ But that advice assumes the United States is capable of arresting those situations in the first instance, and that their resolution would provide foreign policy benefits to the US proportionate to the effort required to effect change.
As the most powerful nation on Earth, the US certainly has the military capability to intervene in situations such as Iraq and Ukraine should it so choose. No other country could have simultaneously maintained combat forces half a world away in the manner the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the 2000s. But the ability to deploy troops depends on more than military and logistical elements. In a broader sense, the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have eroded global confidence in American leadership, limiting its ability to build international consensus and partnership on humanitarian intervention.
While Hillary Clinton may argue that US intervention in Syria could have prevented the rise of ISIS, it’s easy to forget the widespread international hesitance around intervention at the time, especially following mission creep in the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya.
In addition to the difficulties in building international consensus around the precise nature of intervention in Iraq and Ukraine, President Obama would also have to justify overseas deployment of American troops to his electorate. Following over a decade of overseas deployment, the American public’s appetite for sending troops into harm’s way is low indeed. In June, for example, the Washington Post found that 65 per cent of Americans opposed sending US ground forces to Iraq. For an already unpopular President, political capital may best be spent on his domestic agenda rather than justifying foreign military interventions.
In the case of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, it’s hard to see what more the US could have reasonably done. Deploying US forces could have dangerously escalated tensions between two nuclear powers and, while there’s more that the US could have done short of military action, economic sanctions and the exclusion of Russia from international fora are not insubstantial.
True, the US could have intervened more heavily in both Iraq and Ukraine, but it would have come with significant costs to the US’s reputation as well as the economic, human and electoral costs of international deployments. Those costs might not be worth the benefits intervention would deliver to the US. It’s hard to see how the trouble spots in Ukraine and the Middle East pose a direct threat to the US. In fact, it has been argued that they probably don’t even pose a danger, imminent or otherwise, to the international order that the US upholds.
It’s not surprising that US allies in the affected regions are calling for American intervention in those areas. What the Western world has to realise is that it’s not the role of America to uphold peace and democracy everywhere, especially as it deals with its own structural deficit issues which are contributing to the shrinking of US hard-power capability.
President Obama’s opposition to ‘dumb wars’—that is, wars over issues that pose ‘no imminent and direct threat to the United States’—is already on record. There have been consistent calls for US allies to stop freeriding and invest more in defence and national security capabilities. It shouldn’t be surprising then if the US doesn’t engage with issues that aren’t core to its defence and foreign policy requirements.
We can’t expect the US to solve all of the world’s problems. For a halcyon decade following the end of the Cold War the US was, perhaps, the world police. While the world may be ‘heating up,’ it doesn’t appear to have reached the point where it threatens America’s core interests and national security. If the US doesn’t intervene in areas where the costs of intervention far outweigh any direct potential benefits to it that should be seen as a success of foreign policy rather than a failure. If the security and safety of eastern Europe, the Middle East, or other areas of the world (perhaps southeast Asia?) are of concern, instead of relying on America to come to the rescue we could perhaps work on building national and multilateral institutions with the capacity to respond to and contain crises.
Jacob Traeger is an account manager with CMAX Advisory. Image courtesy of The White House.