Cowboy foreign policy

Last week in NRO, Jonah Goldberg nicely encapsulated the Obama Administration’s recent decision to help root out and destroy the LRA in central Africa.

President Obama notified Congress that he’s sending about 100 combat-equipped troops to advise African forces on how best to kill or capture (but hopefully kill) one of the truly hideous villains breathing today, Joseph Kony, and destroy his militia cult, the Lord’s Resistance Army….

Under Pres. George W. Bush, critics might have called this sort of thing an instance of “cowboy foreign policy.” I never understood why the term was an insult. Cowboys do good when they can and where they can. They may not go looking for trouble, but they don’t hide from it either. Yes, in movies and books, cowboys usually only shoot when somebody else has shot at them first. But every now and then a villain comes along who is so vile, so repugnant, so contrary to decency that the cowboy does what he has to do on the grounds that some men just need killing.

Joseph Kony strikes me as such a man.

Though dismissing the Administration national security arguments for this intervention as probably overblown, Goldberg is right that Obama was “absolutely right to do it.”  I can hear already the “but it is not in our national interest” drivel, so save your pixels.  The bottom line is that I’m only interested in the “national interest” to the extent that it supports the interest of humanity.  And the sister argument about respecting national sovereignty (which I care more about, but not that much more)  is even more ridiculous in this case.  Kony isn’t anyone’s sovereign ruler.  He is just a thug and a monster.

Charging in on a white horse with guns blazing is not always the wisest course of action.  Indeed, it may be the case that it is usually, even if there seems to be compelling humanitarian reasons, not the wisest course of action.  Military interventions can undermine larger foreign policy interests of the U.S. and, in some cases, the welfare of interests of the people they are designed to assist.  But such arguments are not trump cards to play to avoid moral responsibility for the brutal rape, torture, and murder of thousands of innocents.  It is in our national interest to do what we can, where we can, if we can.

Any decent cowboy knows that.  Unfortunately, the rabid isolationists do not.

14 thoughts on “Cowboy foreign policy

  1. Hmm. So exactly which provision in the Constitution licenses this use of US military force? Gosh, maybe it’s not just isolationists but those who believe in the rule of law that might have a little problem with such an excursion. Are we constrained by the Constitution only when it is not obvious to some of us that it would be a good idea to do something the Constitution does not contemplate?

  2. So, other than the Preamble, where does the Constitution say anything about what the military should do or why?

    All the Constitution authorizes is that Congress declares war, raise armies, fund them, and that the President commands them. Show me where it says why or what their limits are? (maybe I’m missing something). I might buy the argument that any such actions require Congressional support (though in this case Congress unanimously authorized the President to take actions against the LRA), but not that humanitarian military interventions are inherently unconstitutional.

    The only explicit defense of any sort of foreign policy is in the Preamble. I am quite happy with interpreting those sentiments (which can be abused to justify all sorts of government actions as well as all sorts of inaction, we all realize) to include partnering with the nations of the world to protect humanity, where feasible, from atrocities committed by groups such as the LRA, particularly when asked to assist and when the people themselves are more or less helpless to do the job themselves. Certainly such action is consistent with securing the blessings of liberty for our prosperity. And I don’t think the “general welfare” can ever be promoted with a blindness to the welfare of those outside the US borders. Such blindness not only leads to the deaths of millions but , as a consequence, we are severely diminished as a people. Hardly in our general welfare or consistent with our common defence [sic], I think.

    The rule of law without common sense can be just as tyrannical as no rule of law.

    [PS: I think your reading of the Constitution would preclude any kind of territorial expansion outside of the original 13 colonies]

    1. Oh, and the Army can’t stay in our houses without an invitation. Still searching…

      [And since there are procedures for states to enter the Union, we could presume that acquiring territories is implicitly allowable under the Constitution, unless only pre-exisiting states (Canadian provinces, say). Even those territories that were acquired by “purchase” were hardly done with the “consent of the governed.” Of course this is not to defend all the historical land acquisitions of the United States, but I don’t see those acquisitions as unconstitutional.]

      1. For my part I am guessing that when the Constitution was being drawn up and there was mention of the “general welfare,” there was not the slightest suggestion that the welfare in question was of people in other nations, or that there was concern that the use of military force was necessary to prevent the moral diminution of the people. But stretching the notion of the “general welfare” to mean anything one thinks is a worthy purpose is a pretty well-established tradition.

      2. Yeah, which I already warned against. But extending the blessings of liberty in ways that would have great benefits to the oppressed and relatively small costs to us, is a stretch I’m willing to make–especially since the Constitution doesn’t prescribe any particular foreign policy vision, but has a lot to say about how the federal government would treat the citizens within the Sates. And I’d bet the Founders would make such a stretch, too. From many passages in the Constitution, the waging of foreign policy, including warfare, is a federal matter that the States have little to do with, other than through their elected representatives in Congress.

        And I’m not in general a fan of using the Preamble to justify a particular policy vision, especially if it goes against particular mandates within the Constitution, such as the 10th Ammendment. But I’m not seeing any of these mandates with respect to foreign policy or warfare.

        I add that I’m not beeing cheeky here. Not being a foreign policy scholar, I haven’t tried to make a Constitutional case one way or the other about humanitarian interventions before. I just can’t think of any Constitutional prohibitions against humanitarian interventions, in particular, or military action in general.

      3. I think you are ignoring that the Founders didn’t conceive of having large standing armies sitting around in peacetime that could be quickly used by the President for the purposes to which you would put them.

      4. The Founders wouldn’t have conceived of a whole lot of things. This is NOT an argument for a “living constitution” used to ignore principles actually in the Constitution. Still, we shouldn’t hamstring legitimate actions of government by holding the Constitution to a world we no longer live in.

        Perhaps the Founders created a Constitution that said virtually nothing about foreign policy for a reason.

  3. “So, other than the Preamble, where does the Constitution say anything about what the military should do or why?”

    A valid question.

    I would agree with you that (unlike Libya, I believe?), Congress has expressed its will with 22 USC 2151, stating that it was Congress’s will that the US go about: “providing political, economic, military, and intelligence support for viable multilateral efforts to protect civilians from the Lord’s Resistance Army, to apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield in the continued absence of a negotiated solution, and to disarm and demobilize
    the remaining Lord’s Resistance Army fighters.”

    With that said, the Commander in chief power is limited to directing the armed forces only. Committing them unilaterally is, I believe, a violation of separation of powers, as it is Congress’s job to declare war. Of course, when Congress has no backbone, and continues to fund the President’s expeditions carte blanche, then their lack of action might be determined as acquiescence.

    1. Actually, I would be very open to this empirical argument you cite, as pretty much said in my post.

      Speaking of Mill, some yahoo at Cato posted the following quote (attributed to Mill):

      “The only test possessing any real value, of a people’s having become fit for popular institutions is that they, or a sufficient portion of them to prevail in the contest, are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation… But the evil is, that if they have not sufficient love of liberty to be able to wrest it from merely domestic oppressors, the liberty which is bestowed on them by other hands than their own, will have nothing real, nothing permanent.’

      So people downtrodden and oppressed by tyranny are worthy of freedom only if they have the means to wrest it from the hands of their oppressors? This is probably the most reprehensible foreign policy claim I’ve ever heard. And I can’t imagine that even if I were a full-fledged isolationist that I would agree with anything so stupid.

  4. I can hear already the “but it is not in our national interest” drivel, so save your pixels.

    Eh, I’ll waste them anyway. Though this intervention has an even smaller footprint than the similarly justified on humanitarian grounds Libya intervention (which, by the lights of our press, has been proven successful after Gaddafi was sodomized and killed) and that intervention had much less imprint than the Iraqi invasion or our war in Afghanistan and it’s ramp up in 2009, it is still part of a trend of involving our military in conflicts to which we are not parties with little justification beyond the best of intentions.

    To be sure, if our 100 troops help President-for-life Yoweri Museveni dispatch the Acholi cult leader and his brainwashed minions, so much the better. It doesn’t change the fact that this is a misuse of our military power and the habit of throwing our weight around in humanitarian skirmishes is a pernicious one that entrenches an attitude of military adventurism without regard for consequences or American interests (yes, these should be important considerations in any military operation that puts American lives and capital on the line).

    Finally, I’ll say that our decision to intervene in this particular conflict is pretty obviously tied to domestic politics (Invisible Children), rather than some objective survey of which example of petty African brutality would be best diminished by an injection of U.S. troops.

  5. I’d also add that the American Government is notorious for doing a terrible job at these things (see Bay of Pigs, et. al).

    1. I agree that there is a tendency to seriously and systematically underestimate the requirements to successfully complete the mission (IRAQ being exhibit #1)–which is sufficient cause to be extremely cautious about military interventions.

      Though, as with the Bay of Pigs, what do you expect when you make basically a token, poorly designed effort and pull out at the first sign of trouble? As “terrible” as the Bay of Pigs might have been in its planning and/or execution, contemplate what a Castro-less Cuba for a half century might have accomplished–for the US, for Cuban Americans, and, especially, for Cuba. [It may well be that there wasn’t a military option that made sense, I’m just not convinced that the Bay of Pigs proves anything.]

      I would be the first to agree that the willingness–politically and economicaly–to see a mission through the tough parts should be a prerequisite for taking any action.

  6. This engages the so-called ‘liberal fallacy’ – that is, “if the government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t happen”.

    What’s stopping American citizens from contributing money to the current leadership of Uganda to hire mercenaries to accomplish this task?

    If Congress prohibits it, Congress can un-prohibit it cases it favors. No standing Army required, nor debates about going abroad in search of monsters to destroy or strained parsing of the Constitution.

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