Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Paradoxes of an Interventionist Foreign Policy

In case you hadn't noticed ...

The U.S. has long been a critic of Assad's government in Syria, supporting, at least verbally, the insurgency against him. Military intervention in support of that insurgency seems to have been seriously considered although never actually implemented. Then ISIS, one of the groups fighting Assad, invaded Iraq and seized substantial amounts of territory, raising the possibility of a takeover of the country by Sunni fundamentalists. The U.S. government responded by air attacks against ISIS in Iraq. It now seems to be seriously considering air attacks on ISIS in Syria.

In other words, they are considering military intervention in support of the same government they were, quite recently, considering military intervention against.

Which reminds me of something I wrote more than forty years ago:
The weak point in the argument is its assumption that the interventionist foreign policy will be done well—that your foreign minister is Machiavelli or Metternich. In order for the policy to work, you must correctly figure out which countries are going to be your enemies and which your allies ten years down the road. If you get it wrong, you find yourself unnecessarily blundering into other people's wars, spending your blood and treasure in their fights instead of theirs in yours. You may, to take an example not entirely at random, get into one war as a result of trying to defend China from Japan, spend the next thirty years trying to defend Japan (and Korea, and Vietnam,. ..) from China, then finally discover that the Chinese are your natural allies against the Soviet Union.
(The Machinery of Freedom, Chapter 45)


Laird said...

Well said. It should also be noted that not only were we Assad's mortal enemy just one year ago (with Obama calling for his resignation and almost taking us to war against him, which was only prevented by outcry of the American people), but it now appears that we have been arming ISIS for several years (perhaps inadvertently, but still . . .) Our foreign policy isn't being devised by Metternich, but by Moe, Larry and Curly.

August said...

I think Assad is very likely still the enemy. ISIS is the propaganda- the pretext for the U.S. to begin action. Why should the target list be constrained to ISIS?

Anonymous said...

^ Bingo!

LH said...


I think you are being enormously unfair to the Stooges.

Jonathan said...

Arguments for government action of any kind tend to assume that the government will act with skill: a triumph of hope over experience.

Ryan said...

To support interventionist foreign policy, you don't have to believe the government will execute the intervention well--you only have to believe that it will execute it well enough that the end result is better than if it had done nothing.

Prof Boudreaux argues if you don't believe in government intervention in markets at home, you shouldn't believe in it abroad. I disagree. When the government intervenes in markets it has to do things more efficiently than the markets do them. Not so with foreign policy. It just has to improve the situation enough to justify the costs.

I think your examples illustrate this. With the exception of Vietnam, I would think most of those interventions were worth it. Certainly fighting WWII against Japan was worth it. The Korean War was worth it. Fight the cold war seems worth it. And it's hard to know what the counter-factual is, but if we'd stuck it out and won in Vietnam, it may have been well worth it, too.

Jonathan said...

Ryan, I think your first sentence is a point worth making, but you don't really answer the points made in the original post.

Fighting the Second World War wasn't an option for the USA. Japan attacked it and Germany declared war on it. When that happens, you're in the war whether you like it or not. It doesn't really count as a deliberate foreign intervention.

I wouldn't willingly have fought in Korea or Vietnam, but then I'm British (and not born at the time of the Korean war), so I didn't have to.

Anonymous said...

The insight here is to not treat this as a paradox or anomaly but rather to adjust the political science to accommodate this regularly observed rational pattern. If we adopt the methodology of Anthony de Jasay's maximizing firm--the maximand being discretionary power--then this is what we would expect and predict.

We should not exclude the scientific method from political science.

David Friedman said...

Jonathan: Japan attacked the U.S., but only after the U.S. had done various things to oppose the Japanese invasion of China, including embargoing oil shipments. Japan, as I understand the situation, was faced with the alternative of running too low on oil to fight a naval war or getting it somewhere, which meant Indonesia, then controlled by the Dutch, which was likely to mean war with the U.S.

It's worth remembering that the only reason the Japanese attacked the U.S. without first declaring war before the U.S. did the same to them was that it took the Flying Tigers longer to get into action in China against the Japanese than expected. They are now known to have been a government project, although they claimed to be private.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the information: I wasn't aware of those details. They help to explain the background to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I think it remains true that the US government took no definite decision to join the war before Pearl Harbor; and the attack on Pearl Harbor took the decision out of its hands.

It chose to meddle in the war in some small ways before Pearl Harbor, which was probably inadvisable if it really wanted to keep out of it.

You can argue that the USA could have stayed out of the war by following a strictly neutral policy throughout. That's possible, but it's alternative-history speculation and can't be proved.

David Friedman said...

I think it's pretty clear that Roosevelt wanted to get the U.S. into the war but did not have sufficient support to do so. I don't know if intervention short of war was intended to provoke a Japanese attack or not.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

Yes, it seems that Roosevelt was keen at least to support Britain and her allies in the war, but the voters and many politicians preferred to keep out of it.

Wikipedia reports that, in the presidential election campaign of 1940, «Roosevelt stressed both his proven leadership experience and his intention to do everything possible to keep the United States out of war. In one of his speeches he declared to potential recruits that "you boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war."»

Either this was insincere or he changed his mind in mid-1941, when he started planning for full involvement in the war. However, it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to shift public opinion.