Intervention Logic

Do we always need to send more troops abroad?

"Now that we're there," Howard Dean told the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt last week, referring to Iraq, "we're stuck."

It was an announcement many non-Democrats applauded as a sign that even an anti-war candidate understands the seriousness of staying the course in Baghdad and Kabul. But it was also a timely reminder about the logic of military intervention: Once you start deploying tens of thousands of troops and spending billions of dollars, it's damned hard to stop, no matter how avowedly anti-interventionist a presidential candidate may be.

Take Dean. The Democratic front-runner, who built his lead by opposing Gulf War II, advocates boosting troop levels in Afghanistan by 500 percent, and making a nation-building commitment to Baghdad that far outstrips what the Bush Administration currently contemplates. "Bringing democracy to Iraq is not a two-year proposition," he told Hiatt. "Having elections alone doesn't guarantee democracy. You've got to have institutions and the rule of law, and in a country that hasn't had that in 3,000 years, it's unlikely to suddenly develop by having elections and getting the heck out."

For some -- though certainly not all -- opponents to the war, Dean's stance seemed like a policy of "we broke it we bought it" (in the words of blogger Max Sawicky). "What's new is a more comprehensive view emerging that we need lots more troops -- tens of thousands -- in both Iraq and Afghanistan," Sawicky wrote. "(Incidentally, this means a non-trivial expansion of the military and the defense budget; personnel and resources will not be redeployed from other missions.) We didn't want to be there, but duty now compels us to a policy more adventurist than that of the Bush Administration. It is more so because its goals are more far-reaching, or it is more committed to these goals than the Bushies, and being more ambitious or more committed means using more force."

In spirit, the Dean plan is similar to George Bush's defiant statement this week that: "Retreat in the face of terror would only invite further and bolder attacks. There will be no retreat." If we don't -- at the very least -- maintain current levels of spending and troop deployment, then the terrorists will have won.

Bush and Dean both may well be right. But it's interesting to note that both sides of the American political divide believe that confronting Islamacist terror requires essentially the same solution: more overseas commitment.

In part, this reflects the logic of exercising America's historic power. Every president, regardless of what he said before taking the oath, ends up fighting wars, rebuilding faraway lands, and assuming an outsized role in solving the world's problems, great or trivial. Clinton campaigned on the economy, and ended up micro-managing every "peace process" he could get near. Bush famously scoffed at "nation-building," and said his administration would have a "humble" foreign policy. The reality of inheriting existing commitments, and the temptation of using the country's unprecedented might to do good, almost always trump any vaguely isolationist impulse.

For non-isolationists like me, this can be a good thing -- I still think the world is a better, safer and more just place after the wars in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, for example (while remaining cowardly agnostic about Iraq). But to ignore the momentum that such interventions create, and the danger that that momentum may cause, would be folly.

Right now, as Bush's poll numbers drop and American servicemen get killed almost daily, a loose consensus is emerging that we need to flood the zone with tens of thousands of more troops, all over the world. The New Republic complains about "the blatant foot-dragging over the commitment of American troops to Liberia," and sneers that the Republican Party's "rank and file are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of America as an occupying power." Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria wants a massive budget and troop increase in Iraq, and for Bush to "make a speech explaining to the American people why it is crucial that we succeed in Iraq, what the stakes are and why the costs are justified. He should make clear in no uncertain terms that the United States will stay committed to this course for as long as the Iraqi people wish its help and assistance."

Zakaria, like Dean and many left-of-center nation-builders, want the costs and burdens (and business opportunities) to be shared by the currently alienated international community. But the neo-conservatives closer to Bush's cabinet have an even more massive undertaking in mind: Do much more, and do it alone.

"[T]his is the time to bite the bullet and pay the price," the Weekly Standard's William Kristol and Robert Kagan warned recently. "Next spring, if disaster looms, it will be harder. And it may be too late. The same goes for the financial resources the administration has sought for Iraqi reconstruction. It is simply unconscionable that debilitating power shortages persist in Iraq, turning Iraqi public opinion against the United States. This is one of those problems that can be solved with enough money."

When Republicans start sounding like teachers unions (all we need is lots more money!) it might be time to take a step back. Kristol's vision, as far as I can grasp it, seems to involve the open-ended, ever-more-expensive placement of American necks in harm's way. Already, as Zakaria points out, "the United States is currently providing 95 percent of total aid to Iraq and 90 percent of the troops, and suffering 90 percent of the casualties."

This expanding effort, if we can afford it, may confront and defeat terrorists at their source, and therefore save American lives at home. But it also may kill off hundreds or even thousands more of our troops, while helping anti-American terrorist groups recruit more members. You don't have to be an isolationist, or an apologist for evil men, to be worried.

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