Here's Something Huge That Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Doesn't Know About History

In foreign policy the danger is intervention, not 'isolation'


White House

A lot of people are warning against America turning "isolationist." We can dismiss the warnings—special pleadings, really—emanating from other countries, where people have free-ridden on American taxpayers for decades. If Europeans are worried about defending themselves, why are they cutting their military budgets? Not that we should mind if they do, but they should not look to us to pick up any slack.

President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are the latest to express concern that the American appetite for managing foreign conflicts is waning. In his West Point speech Wednesday, Obama said the military is the "backbone" of American leadership, even as he claimed that force is not the first answer to every problem. And Hagel recently told some foreign-policy wonks in Chicago that it would be "a mistake to view our global responsibilities as a burden or charity." How would he propose that we taxpayers view them? As a privilege?

Hagel said that withdrawing from the world would have a high cost. Has he checked lately on what military and political engagement is costing the taxpayers? The full cost of the military alone is over a trillion dollars a year. The U.S. government spends more on this than most of the rest of the world combined.

Hagel also said, "Turning inward, history teaches us, does not insulate us from the world's troubles. It only forces us to be more engaged later—at a higher cost, at a higher cost in blood and treasure, and often on the terms of others."

Hagel is wrong about history. When have American politicians ever disengaged from the world? Even James Monroe (of Monroe Doctrine fame) and his secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, intervened in a Greek civil war. The entire Western hemisphere was seen as America's concern by its rulers. The refusal to join the League of Nations after World War I was more an assertion of unilateralism over encumbering multilateralism than a rejection of engagement.

And surely Hagel can't be referring to the period before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, because he must know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did everything in his power to maneuver Germany or Japan, as Secretary of War Henry Stimson famously put it, into "firing the first shot."

Many people think the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, resulted from disengagement, but that conflicts with the facts. Osama bin Laden said al-Qaeda was striking out against decades of brutal U.S. intervention, direct and indirect, in Iraq, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Arab Muslim world.

Those high costs in blood and treasure were the consequences of intervention, not "isolationism." That's why the case for political and military disengagement is so strong. The butcher's bill and the money price cannot be tolerated. America's record of death, injury, and destruction has on net created enemies. The gross cultural and economic distortions from worshipful militarism have yet to be calculated.

And let's not forget another cost: the toll on Americans ordered to kill and repress fellow human beings in other countries. (I don't mean to relieve individual members of the military of their responsibility; they volunteered and chose to obey orders unquestioningly.)

President Obama says he will draw down forces in Afghanistan, and this upsets the militarists, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain and the editorial boards of the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Yet under the plan, after 2015, a U.S. force will remain to support a regime that many Afghans don't support. That is not disengagement.

Even people who are tired of Afghanistan after 13 years want Obama to intervene more directly in Syria. Have they learned nothing? There is no such thing as a clean and simple intervention with just the result sought. The war in Afghanistan, ostensibly intended to eradicate al-Qaeda, served to spread an intensified jihadist movement to Iraq, Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. NATO's air strikes in Libya spread arms and battle-trained jihadis into west Africa. The law of unintended consequences makes fools of so-called leaders.

Danger, then, lies not in "isolationism"—a misnomer if global trade and travel are freed. Rather, it lies in a rogue and delusional U.S. government that tries to police the world.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation. 

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  1. “But we must do something!!!!!!”

  2. Bzzzt. Bin Laden’s main beef with the USA was the fact that we had stationed troops in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    And WHYYYY were we in KSA? Because the Sauds asked us to be there.

    And WHYYYY did the Sauds ask us to be there? Because Saddam Hussein had parked a load of milfors on their border fresh from overrunning a jointly-shared neighbor.

    1. Why should I care what dictator runs the place?

    2. Or maybe they asked us there to provoke the more radical members of their religion into trying to fuck with us.

      /removes tin foil hat

  3. they volunteered and chose to obey orders unquestioningly

    Must have been time consuming interviewing every soldier for this piece to determine that not a one of them ever had second thoughts about these missions. Fine work.

    1. Yeah, I volunteered still questioned most every order I received. Heck, I even disobeyed a few of the unlawful ones.

    2. I don’t mean to relieve individual members of the military of their responsibility; they volunteered and chose to obey orders unquestioningly.

      Yeah. Right.

      Sheldon, have you ever as much as spoken to a Soldier, Sailor Airman or Marine?

      I didn’t just question orders, I would actively challenge them. And I was rather ordinary in that regard.

  4. This is a much better article from Sheldon than the usual. While there are quite a few unsupported points here (unavoidable in an article of this length), this is a good summation of why we shouldn’t go find enemies to fight… or even be here in the first place.

    1. I’ve noticed that in a lot of articles on this topic. I generally agree with the authors, but most need to do a better job of making their case.

  5. More dangerous for who, and in what situation? I agree that it is generally a safe call for the US to be ‘isolationist’, but that isn’t the case for other countries (Poland, anyone?) and it is far less obvious as a generally-applicable remedy than most libertarians appear to think it is.

    1. Switzerland?

      Yes, the mountains versus the flat of Poland, but otherwise? Oh right, disarmed populace. Can’t be REALLY evil to your own people when they have guns… Much better to waste trillions interfering and causing wars in OTHER countries, so you can keep your own people oppressed…

      Didn’t I hear that was a common agreement between Greek Kings of City-States?

      1. Belgium is an easy counterexample of a WWI-WWII era country with a well-armed citizenry (at the time of WWI), and its neutrality was invaded twice (by the same neighbor) with impunity.

        1. How well armed? Stats please. Also, it’s a very small country compared to the population of Poland.

          Secondly, the French are idiots. Shocking that Germany would go around the Maginot line… just like they did in WW1.

  6. i’d be willing to go Isolationist, but history as shown that when we leave Foreign Affairs to Foreigners, they fuck it up rather badly.

    Since we can’t afford anything but Isolationism, maybe they won’t plunge Europe into a war, and China and Japan will get along and no one will nuke Israel.

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