James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Mailbag: Vital Interests and Political Pejoratives

by James M. Lindsay
September 12, 2011

A cyclist posts a parcel in Royal Mail postbox on the Embankment in London October 8, 2009. Workers at Britain's state-owned Royal Mail voted overwhelmingly for a nationwide strike on Thursday, escalating a dispute over pay and conditions which has caused widespread disruption to postal services. REUTERS/Kieran Doherty

A cyclist posts a parcel in Royal Mail postbox on the Embankment in London. (Kieran Doherty/courtesy Reuters)

Mailbag time. Carl responded to my Four Takeaways from the GOP Presidential Debate by saying that he was looking four things:

1) The US should not commit forces to military action oversees unless the cause is clearly vital to our national interest.
2) If the decision is made to commit US forces abroad, it should be done with clear intent and support needed to win, and there must be clear objectives.
3) If we do commit troops abroad for combat, there must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the actions we take will have the clear support of a critical mass of the American people and US Congress.
4) Even after all of these tests are met, our troops should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no other choice is available.

Most people probably would second Carl’s four criteria, which is why they can only start a conversation and not end it. People like the criteria in the abstract but disagree over how to apply them in real world situations. One person’s “vital interest” is another’s “imperial temptation.” That’s why it is important that Rick Perry be asked what he considers “military adventurism” or Michele Bachmann be asked why intervention in Libya was a mistake. Voters get an opportunity to see how candidates apply broad concepts to specific situations. They can in turn decide whether they agree or not.

I personally am leery of the idea that the United States should engage in military action overseas only when vital interests are at stake. That formulation colors the decision a bit too black and white for my tastes. The level of military response can be scaled to the interests at stake. Of course, I may be interpreting the phrase “military action,” which covers a pretty broad ranges of activities, far more broadly than Carl intends it.

Jeff weighed in that:

“Isolationist” is a pejorative term used to demonize the rational argument for “Non-Intervention” of one state in another’s concerns. The reasons for proposing non-intervention can be debated. Is it a good policy or not? Why? Just to label it “Isolationist” is to distort the position. How about some rational discussion on the merits of the proposed policy? Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Sound defense of your own borders. Free trade with all. I like that.

Fair point. As I have noted before, “isolationist” is a pejorative term in American politics for minimizing America’s military operations abroad, which is why its critics like to use it and its supporters don’t. But it’s also a common and widely understood term for having America do less abroad. I opted to use the term in the post I wrote on last week’s GOP debate because Rick Santorum used it and it gives the flavor of the political point he was trying to score. That said, I should have put the term in quotes when I wrote the parenthetical aside, “Why withdrawing U.S. troops from a ten-year-old war constitutes isolationism is a separate question.”

As for having a rational discussion on the merits of U.S. military commitments overseas, I’m all for it. We got a bit of that discussion last month at the Ames, Iowa debate when Santorum and Ron Paul squared off on the merits of U.S. military operations overseas. It would be great to have more it. Perhaps at tonight’s GOP debate?

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