Can Interventionism Be 'A Good Thing'?

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I recently received
the following e-mail, sent in response to my article entitled "Orthogonality
versus Opposite Direction
" (which
appeared in the February 14 issue of — see also

way of looking at things. I’m not entirely convinced that the
analogy is supremely apt or useful,
but it’s refreshing to the technical mind.

don’t really understand your basis for unequivocally concluding
that interventionism
and do-goodism inevitably cause
more problems than they solve. I’ll be impressed should you
find a way to demonstrate that empirically! Should the United
have refused to engage in either World War? Should it have
restricted its participation to responding to the Japanese?
If the Japanese
hadn’t attacked would it have been morally acceptable for the
U.S. to allow Hitler to operate unchecked? Morality aside,
do you actually believe that if everyone had just minded his
business after Poland was invaded there would have been fewer
problems in the long run?"

this provoked a reaction on my part, which I share with the reader
below (a "cleaned-up" version
that corrects a couple of misspellings and one subject-verb disagreement,
and also removes my address of the recipient by name):

"The U.S. should certainly have refused to
engage in WWI, which, as the eminent military historian John
Keegan notes, was "a tragic and unnecessary conflict." U.S.
involvement in the war led to the after-war settlement known
as the Treaty of Versailles, which led to German resentment and
paved the way for Hitler to rise to power in the 1930’s. Hardly
a matter of "making the world safe for democracy"!
As to the Japanese question, we provoked the Japanese to attack
us at Pearl Harbor because our government didn’t like the idea
of having a threat to rising American hegemony in East Asia.
You can point to atrocities such as “the rape of Nanking” by
the Japanese and the Holocaust by the Nazis to say that interventionism
is needed, but I offer the following by way of a counter-argument:

  1. Principled
    neutrality is usually a better alternative than interventionism.
    Humanitarian efforts to aid the dispossessed
    in question, including the opening of our borders, while
    not sacrificing our young on the shores of Europe and Asia,
    have been a mutually beneficial arrangement that might
    well have saved many lives, American and otherwise. Had
    we stayed
    out of Europe in the 1940’s, we could have let the Nazis
    and the Soviets battle it out, and then come to a negotiated
    while putting forth our hand, in a benign manner, to
    help the Jews, Gypsies, and others suffering under Nazi
    rule. While
    the Swiss’ hands were not entirely clean so far as the
    prosecution of WWII was concerned, their efforts were closer
    to the ideal
    than ours. Besides, you could make the point that the
    Soviets won WWII, not us and the Brits, as the USSR took
    over much
    of Eastern Europe (including Poland, the country that
    Britain and France declared war with Germany over in 1939,
    even though
    the USSR invaded eastern Poland shortly thereafter — why was
    Germany’s invasion not OK, but the Soviets’ invasion was? And
    don’t say that it was because, in some sense, Stalin was any
    better than Hitler — Hitler had his millions, but Stalin had
    his tens of millions!) and built, as Churchill called it, the "Iron
    Curtain", which led to the Cold War and the threat of
    nuclear annihilation. Indeed, from that standpoint (namely
    the "domino effect"), it can be argued that
    WWI didn’t end until 1990, when the USSR fell, and given
    our continuing
    conflicts in the Middle East (the seeds of which were
    planted in the post-war plans of Wilson, George and Clemenceau),
    might be fair to say, as others have, that WWI is still going
    on, 89 years after it started! The point is that conflicts
    perpetuate themselves long after they are started.
  2. American
    and allied governments have consistently employed a rank
    and pernicious double standard with regards
    to the commission of atrocities. The Holocaust was a
    monstrous evil, but so was the bombing of Dresden, the
    nuclear annihilation
    of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the systematic rape of
    German women by the Soviets, all done within a 12-month
    span in 1944–45.
    In each case, thousands of innocent civilians either
    had their most basic human rights grossly violated, or
    were murdered
    outright. American policy during the Cold War, and continuing
    on to today, has been an ongoing affirmation of the "Somoza
    standard": "He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard." A
    socialist regime in Chile, under the control of Allende? Why
    we can’t have that! We’ll have to install our puppet Pinochet
    and have him impose martial law, never mind that many people
    unnecessarily die in the process. Saddam Hussein represses
    Kurds in the north of Iraq and Shi’ites in the south? No skin
    off our backs, until he gets too "uppity" and
    invades the country of Kuwait. (And, to justify war against
    him, we’ll
    make up stories about babies being thrown out of incubators,
    and Iraqi troops massing on the Saudi Arabian border.)
    Noriega’s running drugs and weapons through his regime
    in Panama, and
    repressing his own people in the process? Who cares,
    so long as he’s useful to us? I could go on and on —
    the unpopular
    governments of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam and the shah
    in Iran, our blind eye to Pakistan’s willingness to let
    Al Qaeda camps
    operate freely within their borders, and attack our troops
    in Afghanistan before scurrying back to safety in Pakistan
    (oh, you don’t understand, Don — Pakistan's our ally!),
    our government’s implacable unwillingness to let our
    troops be
    subject to the laws of the countries they occupy, even
    when they run over two teenage South Korean girls (last
    year) or
    rape women in Okinawa, and so forth, ad nauseam.

Remember this:

  1. Governments lie, and they do so pathologically.
  2. You,
    and all of the other "subjects" of
    the regime in question (including our benevolent masters
    who bestride the Potomac), are considered expendable by
    these same
    self-proclaimed masters of our fate.
  3. Governments will find ways to repress, however
    brutally, those it deems as threats to their power, which they
    intend to perpetuate, by whatever means necessary.
  4. Governments, upon the brutal exacting of punishment,
    or in preparation thereof, will say and do anything to couch
    their impending (or just-completed) actions in the most moral
    and ethical terms possible, in order to hide the overwhelming
    stench of their atrocities.

Am I anti-American? If you mean, am I in opposition
to the government in Washington, D.C. (be it Democratic or Republican),
I say, forcefully and unswervingly, yes!! But am I anti-American,
in that I oppose the principles of liberty and justice for all,
not according to what anybody in government may say constitutes
justice and liberty, but according to the natural rights of man,
which supersede constitutions, laws, and threats of abuse, I
say no!! In that sense, I’m one of the most pro-American
people you could ever find."

final comment suffices. The e-mailer began his last sentence
with the phrase "morality aside." The
point of this article is to show, by means of many examples,
that an entity can never set aside the issue of morality
in the actions that it takes. We as individuals accept such a
proposition as a given, while setting aside that same principle
when it comes to the actions of governments! The sooner that
people realize that "what's good for the goose is good for
the gander," the better off we'll all be.

18, 2003

Mills [send him mail]
is an assistant professor of mathematics at Southern Illinois University
— Carbondale. He
has a new web site,


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