America's Foreign Policy Problem is Fumbled Humanitarianism, Not Imperialism

Antiwar activists need to understand what's behind the drumbeat to war in Syria

President Barack Obama’s resolve to punish Syria for using chemical weapons has critics of U.S. foreign policy upset that America is yet again acting like an imperialist. Their frustration is appropriate—but their accusation is not. America is less an imperialist and more a hapless uncle trying to teach his wayward nieces and nephews the right moral lesson.

But, just as with the uncle, no one will thank America if it averts further catastrophe—but everyone will blame it if it doesn’t.

It has become fashionable in anti-war circles to rail against American imperialism. But genuine imperialism involves exploiting others for one’s own material interests. That’s what British colonialists did when they took minerals and other raw materials from Indians at confiscatory rates for their factories back home. Or when the Soviet Union transported Eastern European industrial assets to reconstruct the motherland after World War II. The Soviets siphoned out resources from the Eastern Bloc roughly comparable to what "imperialist" America pumped into Western Europe under the Marshall Plan.

By contrast, America’s post-Cold War efforts, with some notable exceptions such as Afghanistan, have been less about protecting its own vital interests and more about promoting broader humanitarian objectives. President George H. W. Bush sent American troops to Somalia in 1993 to stop a nasty civil war in which a U.S. Black Hawk trying to kidnap a militia kingpin who was stopping the delivery of U.N. aid was downed and the bodies of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The first Iraq invasion was launched to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein and establish a loopy "new world order." Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, attacked Haiti in 1994 to restore an elected president ousted by a military junta. Bosnia and Kosovo operations were meant to protect Muslims from wholesale slaughter by Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic.

Even George Bush's Iraq War was not about getting cheap oil, as is popularly believed. Otherwise America could have simply ended the oil sanctions against Saddam. Rather, the war was in equal measure a panicked overreaction to 9/11 and an effort to stop decades of human rights abuses by a ruthless dictator.

Some of these operations were more successful than others. But thanks to an inability to draw proper moral distinctions, America has received far more blame for the civilian casualties it caused than credit for the lives it saved. This blindness even afflicts "objective" research.

Consider the 2006 study in Lancet, a British journal, which cemented the notion that America was even worse for Iraq than Saddam. It surveyed Iraqi households and concluded that "an additional 2.5 percent of Iraq's population has died above what would have occurred without conflict." But 70 percent of these deaths were caused not by coalition forces but terrorists and insurgents. What's more, the study lumped combatants and civilians in its count. But a war's very nature requires killing combatants to protect civilians.

By contrast, figures put together by the Iraq Body Count, which tracks civilian deaths for the express purpose of opposing the Iraq War, suggest that the death rate during occupation  (12,400 per year) was less than half of the death rate (29,000 per year) during 35 years of Saddam.

None of this means that these efforts were justified.

For starters, the opportunity costs were massive. Even a relatively cost-effective intervention like Bosnia required $120,000 for every life saved, according to Dartmouth University's Benjamin Valentino. Far more deaths would be prevented if this money were spent combating measles ($224 per life saved) or malaria ($100 to $200 per life saved).

What's more, even for civilians stuck in violent situations, there is a peaceful solution: Bring them over! Throw open the doors of the U.S. and its Western allies. This will require working with international relief organizations to arrange evacuation. It will also require knocking down immigration barriers against refugees—something even committed restrictionists have to admit is a far better option than risking American—or Western—troops.

America will become far less prone to overseas adventurism when anti-war activists accurately diagnose the motive behind it and offer peaceful alternatives.

In Syria's case, they may or may not have stopped the drumbeat to a war whose only guaranteed outcome is more egg on Uncle Sam’s face. But they need to understand that America needs saving from its impulse to save—not exploit—others.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  • Long Range Boredom||

    The author seems to ignore how colonialism/imperialism was constantly framed as humanitarianism.

  • Sevo||

    See also "Leopold's Ghost"

  • bassjoe||

    Exactly. Not since the 19th century has any of America's foreign entanglements been described as anything but humanitarian/moral engagements.

    That is actually the MAJOR part of the problem. Our goals are ultimately imperialist but our methods are as humanitarian as possible. There's an inherent conflict there that makes all of our military (mis)adventures that much more disastrous.

  • Mark22||

    The US is trying to create a world of independent free market economies that are closely integrated into trade relations with the US and its allies. That is still pure self-interest, but it's also something entirely different from imperialism.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    This might possibly be the most misguided opinion piece I've read on Reason.

    Obviously you've been convinced through politicians' rhetoric that these wars are ultimately about humanity, when they are not. I don't know if your naive or ignorant, but "corporate imperialism" is still none-the-less imperialism.

    The adventuring U.S.A. is doing in the Middle East is all about corporate(mainly oil companies), military(military contracts are big money-makers) and fiscal(you realize Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya didn't have central banks correct?) interests.

    Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria are being used as strategic military holdings to position ourselves into all out war with Iran. To even think this is about anything else than the petrodollar is silly.

  • KPres||

    Just STFU with the Alex Jones bullshit. Look at this and stop being stupid:

    http://www.npr.org/news/graphi.....od-300.gif

    Now tell me again that Iran/Iraq/Syria/Afganistan are about oil. Fuck you people are idiots.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    I would love to hear a logical argument from you or Sevo against my response below.

    Posting an oil production pie chart and name calling does not deter the fact that the US economy is heavily reliant on OPEC and the petrodollar, and how that reliance doesn't impact the crisis in Syria.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    how that reliance impacts the*

  • Mark22||

    I would love to hear a logical argument (with numbers) that it makes any significant difference to the US economy or the average US voter what happens in Iran/Iraq/Syria/Afghanistan. Let's start there, OK?

  • Sevo||

    ..."is all about corporate(mainly oil companies)"...

    Oh, why didn't WE think of that?!
    Go away, idiot.

  • Res ipsa loquitur||

    I better get some cheap gas out of this shit !

  • Jake W||

    The corporate contracts being the big one here, given US companies are paid generously to develop weapons to destroy places overseas after which US companies are paid to rebuild those places or at least their infrastructure and provide security all the while.

    *Dumps portfolio in Halliburton*

    "We'll be doomed for inaction in Syria!"

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    *yawn*

    It's saddenning to see that some, but not all(thanks @Jake W), of my fellow readers of Reason aren't able to articulate their opinions without resorting to name calling. While Alex Jones and I share a similar belief that most Nation's interests and policies can be bought and are ultimately controlled by money, I don't buy into his anti-Zionist propaganda about the endgame being a mass genocide of the world's poor that was plotted by a Jewish-German banking family from the 1600s(I wouldn't be suprised if it was true though).

    And while you're correct in asserting that the majority of the U.S.'s oil comes from North and Latin America; what you failed to elaborate on, or simply ignored, is that OPEC sets the global price of oil per barrel. The global oil market is complex, and any change in one market effects the whole system. The current members of OPEC are Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E and Venezuela.

    The way the global economy works and what's ultimately allowed the US to run up trillions of dollars of debt, is the fact that oil can only be bought for dollars(except of course Iran). The petrodollar system, and U.S. ability to manipulate the dollar as the global reserve currency, has been the bedrock of American economic power. When nations like Iran, Libya and Iraq refuse to play this global-ponzi-scheme game, is when America has an issue with their disregard to human rights.

  • Mark22||

    "The petrodollar system, and U.S. ability to manipulate the dollar as the global reserve currency, has been the bedrock of American economic power"

    The economic benefits are small at best. Of course, US politicians are tempted to misuse this apparent power, and no doubt that's a reason for their eagerness to engage in war mongering, but in practice, it is nearly worthless; the markets correct for any attempt by the US to exercise it immediately.

    So, let's not pay lip-service to the delusion that US economic power is rooted in "the petrodollar". If anything, US economic ills are rooted there, and the sooner US politicians are weaned off the temptation to manipulate currencies, the better.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    If you don't see how oil, banking and America's interest in the Middle East are intertwined, I don't know what I can do to connect the dots for you.

    ---

    And here is some literature on oil as it relates to Syria:

    Israel Grants First Golan Heights Oil Drilling License To Dick Cheney, Jacob Rothschild and Rupert Murdoch-Linked Company
    http://www.businessinsider.com.....nse-2013-2

    Oil Pipelines running from Iraq to Turkey have been under constant attack in geopolitically unstable regions:
    http://news.yahoo.com/iraq-tur.....24790.html

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    Shell effected from E.U. embargo with Syria:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/.....81286.html

    The Shell is important to note after the C.I.A declassified its involvment in the Iranian Coup over B.P. interests:
    http://www.npr.org/2013/09/01/.....anian-coup

  • Mark22||

    Are you f*cking serious? "After the CIA declassified"? The British and BP's role in the Iranian coup have been known for decades. You must be living under a political rock not to have known this.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    Welsey Clark in 2007 claims US will attack 7 countries in 5 years (got this from a tinfoil site; guess it isn't such a bad idea to hear the liberal, conservative, independent and radicial points of view and draw unbias conclusions):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ha1rEhovONU

    ---

    And I'm the idiot because I believe that human morality can bought for the right price?

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    And lastly I'll add Syria's oil is not the center of the conflict. This a power play about Iran. I guess it just happens to be a convenient-coincidence that all these countries that we attempting to save with "humanitarian" wars, also are vital strategic military holdings if we ever go to war with Iran.

  • ||

    I guess it just happens to be a convenient-coincidence that all these countries that we attempting to save with "humanitarian" wars, also are vital strategic military holdings if we ever go to war with Iran.

    Makes perfect sense as long as history started at lunch time today and you ignore all of the examples in the last century of American military adventurism in locales completely unconnected to oil, the middle east, Iran or teh j00s.

    If this is the best America can do as an imperialist, it's the saddest fucking "empire" that ever existed.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    at least the Romans gave us gladiator games, exotic animals and drunken orgies.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    For the sake of this argument, let's ignore military interventions/wars as a result of Cold War politics, and start at the end of the Vietnam War when the gold standard was replaced by the petrodollar.

    The only way the gold standard could be abandoned was if oil producers refused to accept anything other than U.S. dollars as payment for their oil. This has been the norm following the Nixon Administration's response to the OPEC oil crisis in the mid-1970's, which succeeded in getting Saudi Arabia, traditionally the world's dominant producer, to agree to accept only dollars for oil. The Saudis used their influence to get the rest of OPEC to agree as well. In return, the U.S. offered to militarily defend not so much Saudi Arabia, but the repressive monarchy that ruled it.

    Nixon and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger got the Saudis to agree to invest their oil profits in the U.S. economy. In addition to buying interest bearing U.S. government securities, the Saudis also invested in New York banks. Because the OPEC oil embargo had quadrupled global oil prices, the Saudis and other Arab producers suddenly had a great deal of money to invest. The money parked in those New York banks then became available to be loaned to the rest of the world, which faced major financial crises due to the sudden quadrupling of oil prices.

  • nikolowry@gmail.com||

    By the year 2000 and Iraq's switch to selling Iraq's oil in euros, Saudi Arabia had recycled as much as $1 trillion, primarily in the United States. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates recycled $200–300 billion.

    Since the 1970's, you'd be hard pressed to find military intervention that didn't coincide somehow to OPEC interests. Even some of the Latin America drug wars can be tied directly to OPEC.

    So could you please explain to me how almost 40 years of history equals "lunch time today"? Or better yet, it could be nearly 60 years if you want to start with the C.I.A's involvement in the Iranian Coup over B.P. Oil interests.

  • ||

    For the sake of this argument, let's ignore military interventions/wars as a result of Cold War politics, and start at the end of the Vietnam War when the gold standard was replaced by the petrodollar.

    Which is to say, "For the sake of convenience, let's ignore every historical example that doesn't comport with my storyline". In discussing imperialism generally and American imperialism in particular, in contrast with possible humanitarian motivation for foreign intervention, taking a snapshot that's less than the age of our current president isn't particularly useful. The extent to which your examples support your premise also depend to a a degree on your pre-disposition to believe the premise. I have a difficult time buying into any conspiracy theory that involves a rotating cast of heads of state with varying ideological standpoints and their multitudinous cadre of advisors and staff all A) keeping it quiet, to their graves and B) not bungling it with incompetence.

    To the extent middle east stability is advantageous to American interests, our recent interventions there have actually been a great harm (which is why the dollar has fallen like a rock and only retains any semblance of credibility because of the ugliness of the alternatives; and certain nations have begun openly discussing replacing the USD as reserve currency), and have strengthened Iranian regional power, which neither we, Saudi Arabia, or Israel want.

  • ||

    So could you please explain to me how almost 40 years of history equals "lunch time today"?

    If you don't understand how brief a time 40 years is in historical perspective, there's no possibility of explaining it to you.

  • BardMetal||

    I would prefer some old school imperialism to the nonsense we have now.

    Look at how the Philippines turned out compared to Afghanistan or Iraq.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    "But genuine imperialism involves exploiting others for one’s own material interests. That’s what British colonialists did when they took minerals and other raw materials from Indians at confiscatory rates for their factories back home. "

    Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. My understanding of British imperialism, in particular, was more focused on "civilizing the backwards people" than anything else. And if my understanding of history isn't completely skewed, they wound up wasting a lot more on local development than they took back.

    If this is the case, it stands that America's actions are imperialistic, just not in the way the term is generally used. It further stands that imperialism isn't necessarily exploitative in intent, just in practice. Again, that fits our own experience.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    That's exactly right actually.

    Imperialism was being discredited in the 18th century for good reason and that was because it was so wasteful.

    It's only in the 1880-1920 period that it made a comeback, around the same time progs and other statists bubble up to the surface. Even then it wasn't even rationalized along economic or material prosperity but for stupid shit like missionary work and the white man's burden. It rarely made any economic sense.

    The whole "imperialism as an exploitative economic instrument" is just Lenin's bullshit observation that was regurgitated with lefty college students in the 1960s when they started romanticizing all those decolonization movements. In short the west didn't really benefit from it.

  • mtrueman||

    "In short the west didn't really benefit from it."

    There were plenty of western people who benefited from it. Never read any of the works of Austin or Thackeray?

    Do you believe the opium wars were fought to carry the white man's burden? Or were not economically beneficial to the Empire? I love to hear more of your opinions on the matter. Please expand.

  • mtrueman||

    "civilizing the backwards people"

    It's partly correct, I believe. But the Indian mutiny of the mid 19th century was a turning point. Until then the administration of the empire was by the East India Company. After the disastrous mutiny, Victoria had herself crowned as Empress of India, the company was sidelined and the Crown took over the administration of India. The Church of England became heavily involved in Indian affairs from the same period.

    I think you need to re-examine the economics of the empire. I don't see much waste on local development of British colonies. The focus was to integrate India into a global network - India as a market for cheap British manufacturers, India as a source of cheap tea and wheat to be consumed at home or traded with other colonials. The good people of Boston, for example.

  • jester||

    Point taken, Ms Dalmia, but so the adage goes that the road to hell is paved in good intentions. You could similarly argue that the drug war, alcohol prohibition, Bloombergian soda limits, transfat bans, etc. are meant by its champions to help us all out and save us from ourselves. But they clearly don't. I don't know nor does it really matter what motive each Progressive personally has. It's wrong. It's projection.

  • BardMetal||

    "But genuine imperialism involves exploiting others for one’s own material interests. That’s what British colonialists did when they took minerals and other raw materials from Indians at confiscatory rates for their factories back home. "

    They also ended India's oppressive caste system, brought them democracy, helped unify the country, and also industrialize it.

    Maybe a thank you is order?

  • Sevo||

    'They also ended India's oppressive caste system, brought them democracy, helped unify the country, and also industrialize it.'

    Pretty sure you list the intents rather than the results.

  • Gorilla tactics||

    Hindus had more rights under the British Common law than they did under the Sharia of the Islamic Moghul Empire in India.

  • mtrueman||

    The Hindu religion was actually a creation the British empire. There was no Hindu religion until the British came along and bound an incomprehensible collection of diverse and local customs and beliefs into the umbrella of Hinduism.

  • mtrueman||

    The caste system was never abolished. The British did however make good progress on abolishing the practice of bride burning.

    Unifying the country? No. India was a colony, not a country; a colony subject to British divide and rule. Once the rule ended, only the divisions remained: India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh. I don't see much unity here.

  • VicRattlehead||

    Instead of bombing the crap out of or imposing military presence in Syria how about protecting the boarders of friendly nations, and spending the money that a ground war would suck up on a real humanitarian effort to help those who wish to flee the country. Establish well cared for refugee camps, a path to citizenship in other nations, and send over medical and CBRD aid. we can still save the victims and keep out of the conflict. Or in my opinion let the chips in Syria fall where they may and lets just mind our own American problems like reigning in an extensively Un-constitutional and corrupt regime and fixing a crumbling infrastructure.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Actually, I've got a better idea. If we really want to punish Assad (the war's claimed goal), perhaps we should arrange to have the Chinese and Russians make him have dinner with John Kerry on a weekly basis for a year:
    "By the way, Bashar, did I ever tell you that I served in Vietnam?"
    "Yes, you have. 87 times. And it's only been the third week.
    "Why I still have the hat...."
    "Yes, yes, 'to this day', 'to this day', I've heard this spiel before. Too many times"
    "But I never let any of it mess up my hair!"
    "Holy Mohammed on a stick! If this is the price of staying in power, screw it. I'd rather be an optician."

  • Sevo||

    "America's Foreign Policy Problem is Fumbled Humanitarianism, Not Imperialism"

    There comes a time when that's a distinction absent a difference.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Another article in which the author wants to project honorable intentions onto the evil pricks and cunts that are bombing the fuck out of other countries.

    "US ARMY = Global Force for Good"

    Dalmia's been brainwashed by watching too many .GOVT propaganda-mercials.

  • wwhorton||

    There seem to be more than a few people who are IMHO conflating 19th century imperialism with the various military actions performed by the US and others over the past 50 or so years. That glosses over some very important distinctions. For one, the British (who seem to be the big example) never intended to leave India or any of their possessions. Yes, they did sell (and apparently believe in) the "White Man's Burden", but the endgame of the empire was to lead all of the benighted peoples of the world into a British future, under a British ruler, subject to British authority. Part of the argument for imperialism wasn't just that there were brown people who needed Jesus and place settings; it was that there were dopey non-Brits (or French, or Belgians, etc.) just sitting on top of natural resources and trade centers that clearly were genetically too dumb to know what to do with them, so we'll just come in, take advantage of their resources, learn 'em some civilization and keep them from hurting themselves.

    One huge, huge difference is that American adventurism was never meant to result in American empire. Even the most hawkish neocons never wanted to be saddled with a dependent Iraq as some sort of 51st state or, god forbid, another Puerto Rico. The goal was to make lots of mini-Americas that would, via the magic of democracy, just sort of agree with us and like us, but not be subject to our authority per se. That's not the only difference, but it's a big one.

  • Sevo||

    "The goal was to make lots of mini-Americas that would, via the magic of democracy, just sort of agree with us and like us, but not be subject to our authority per se. That's not the only difference, but it's a big one."

    Not to those being 'convinced' with cruise missiles, it isn't.

  • ||

    "Honey, you know I only beat you because I love you, right?"

    /Abusive Boyfriend

  • MaxMorgan||

    I agree with those who say that the author's definition of imperialism is too restrictive. There are high-minded imperialist adventures, at least in the opinion of those espousing them. What strikes me, however, is that the American variety seems to have some things in common with the early Muslim push to spread the teachings of Mohammed worldwide, at least until they were stopped. It's rather like a desire to spread the American State Religion universally, that state religion being articulated by President Obama and the religious tribe we all recognize here in the States. Of course, some Republicans have a slightly different interpretation of the "sacred texts." So I sort of see all of this as religious warfare carried on behind a mask "progressive" humanitarianism, also called "political correctness." It's all religion but in a secular disguise.

  • Casca||

    If the case to missile, bomb, or invade Syria is so strong why not present the evidence to the world that Assad is responsible for the use chemical weapons? American intelligence doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt in this regard. And if the case can be made then why not sanctions or other diplomatic measures to oust Assad? This whole thing smells like b.s.

  • The Grinch||

    How about just cutting out the middle man and selling Al-Qaeda F-16s? Let them fly their own damn air cover.

  • PH2050||

    The politicians stand on the graves of civilians and then spit on the graves of dead soldiers. Interesting.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    No, ya gotta have the House of Saud in the middle.

  • PH2050||

    Someone remind me, because I seem to have forgotten, what part of the oath military members take says anything about humanitarian intervention? I can only remember the part about defending the Constitution so obviously my memory is faulty in some way.

  • ||

    The constitution is over 100 years old. Nobody even talks like that anymore. It could authorize war on Mars for all we know!

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    I'm afraid you are right. Policians, law-enforcement agents, and judges laugh at anyone trying to use the "that's unconstitutional" argument.

  • ||

    Quoth Nancy Pelosi: "Are you serious?!"

  • ||

    President George H. W. Bush sent American troops to Somalia in 1993 to stop a nasty civil war in which a U.S. Black Hawk trying to kidnap a militia kingpin who was stopping the delivery of U.N. aid was downed and the bodies of dead American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

    Perhaps a small quibble, but GHWB actually sent troops to Somalia in 1992 under UN Operation Restore Hope. Clinton inherited that engagement when he was inaugurated in January 1993, and Operation Gothic Serpent was launched in August of that year. In October 2 Black Hawk helicopters were downed in Mogadishu as part of Gothic Serpent, and you can get the rest from the movie.

  • ||

    Also, loathe as I am to defend Shikha, I'm pretty sure her point was not to justify military action against Syria, but rather to frame opposition to it in terms other than imperialism. Terms arguably more credible. "No blood for oil" was a retarded enough bumper sticker the first time. A war needn't be imperialist to be a bad idea.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Many already understand the urge-to-punish" justification. Challenging interventionists over that one results in blank stares or a blind endorsement of an Obama-type agenda. I grant that one must offer a manifold of objections with the hope that something might strike the right nerve.

    "offer peaceful alternatives"

    I hope she doesn't mean Madeline Albright-type sanctions.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    How do you argue against this one from the lowest type of cowardly war-monger. Remarks made on the Bill Press Show (today?):

    [NON-voting] Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) would vote to take military action in Syria — simply to keep President Barack Obama from being

    “shamed and humiliated on the national stage.....loyalty of Democrats.....They just don’t want to see him shamed and humiliated on the national stage..........at the moment, that’s the only reason I would vote for it if I could vote on it....”

  • ||

    Wow. Yeah, god forbid dear leader should look like the impetuous idiot that he is.

  • derfel cadarn||

    Manifest destiny and American Exceptionalism are just euphemisms for imperialism. Equal to the use of collateral damage to ease the conscience of killing innocents for no good reason.

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