Why US Intervention Can Never Fix the Balkans, or, A Man Is Not a Machine

A friend of mine in law school was Army ROTC.

Although a good guy, he was a big fan of America’s role as a global policeman.

On one occasion, we happened to discuss the American invasion of the Balkans. I maintained that it was a terrible idea, bound to failure while risking worse conflict, and that such totalitarianism abroad only leads to totalitarianism at home.

As an example of the utter futility of attempting to create a lasting social order by force of arms, I made reference to Haiti. My friend did not want to discuss Haiti, which he conceded was a failure of American intervention.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find Max Boot, an editor with the Wall Street Journal, making reference to Haiti while arguing about the folly of pulling American troops out of the Balkans.

As Boot notes, the US invaded Haiti in 1915, under that guardian of the sovereignty of small nations — excepting Ireland — Woodrow Wilson.

In 1934, FDR withdrew American troops from Haiti, figuring that everything had been "fixed" (or because the US could not afford to keep troops in Haiti in the midst of an economic contraction).

Take a moment to search the web for headlines out of Haiti. You may note that Haiti has reverted to about where it was in 1915. So have the Balkans. And this despite, in the case of the Balkans, two world wars to "make the world safe for democracy" and…well, FDR wasn’t quite as big on positive war aims, but he beat those Nazis!

Boot, however, is undeterred. He writes that

It did not take Haiti long to return to a state of despotism interspersed with periods of chaos. By contrast, the 1920s had been one of the most peaceful and prosperous decades in the country’s troubled history — as the 1990s might have been, had Mr. Clinton not ended the second US occupation so soon.

It is very likely true that the 1920s, when Haiti was occupied by the US military, were one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in the history of that country.

Even if true, this begs the question. The question which Boot never answers is "What is the justification for America using its military to impose order around the world?"

Rather than provide a justification for American intervention around the globe, Boot merely makes a utilitarian claim: the end (peace and prosperity) justifies the means (American military occupying the rest of the globe). This utilitarian claim is itself open to dispute.

On this view, the Soviets were morally justified in wanting to impose a communist order upon the West. The end (socialist utopia) justified the means (Soviet military occupying the West).

At a minimum, Boot can have no complaints about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Immediately, then, one should recoil from Boot’s suggestion as unwise. For the sake of thoroughness, however, the particulars will be discussed.

Notice that when the US troops went home, Haiti returned to chaos. This should not be surprising, given that Haiti was born in chaos.

The site of one of the few successful slave rebellions, Haiti was also the site of the worst atrocities committed by free slaves. Whites were exterminated by the free slaves, and Haiti at that time could best be described as Hell on earth. (There is a great chapter on the Haitian slave uprising in Charles Adams’ When in the Course of Human Events).

Haiti is not far from being Hell on earth right now, nor was it in 1915.

The reason for this is that a man is not a machine. When a man is defective, morally speaking, he cannot be "fixed" simply by pointing a gun at his head for five years.

When a man is lazy, or thieving, or murderous, he is much like a broken machine. He does not work properly, i.e., he is not acting in a way proper to human beings. How do you fix him, though? Yell at him? Take his money? Lock him in a cage? Beat him? Kill him? Therein lies the problem which Boot and the fans of interventionism fail to address.

This is, of course, not to argue that the poor and starving in Haiti are poor and starving because they are lazy. Quite to the contrary, they may be the most hard-working and honest people in the world, but they will never be able to prosper and live peacefully so long as their government remains corrupt from top to bottom. The defective men in Haiti which this essay is discussing are those in power. As Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom, in a totalitarian state, the worst sorts of men get on top, because those immoral men are those who feel no remorse over forcing others to do their will, and such use of force is the very nature of a totalitarian state.

How does the United States plan to invade Haiti, or the Balkans, and "make" everyone get along, except by killing foreign politicians? There is no other way beside the threat of violence, which the US must be willing to carry out if the threat is to be effective. If there is no killing to be done, why send the military?

Would Mr. Boot have us permanently annex Haiti and the Balkans? Perhaps Haiti and Yugoslavia should be made into American protectorates, like Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Guam? The past 86 years have not seen a marked change in the political behavior of the Haitians or the Serbs, so why continue these temporary US juntas?

If the end justifies the means, we must not only annex Haiti and the Balkans, but every other nation on earth which is torn by strife. Perhaps we should start with those nations that are the worst, and save Canada for last. Rwanda, run up the Stars and Stripes!

In the end, it is disturbing that Max Boot does not tell us how long Clinton should have left American troops in Haiti, or how long Bush should leave them in the Balkans. I recall that the American stay in Haiti was quite long enough, with riots in the streets and a widespread fear that American troops would be attacked in Port au Prince — their corpses dragged through the streets for CNN, as in Somalia.

Boot, of course, does not say how long the US Army should occupy Haiti or the Balkans because he cannot say for how long.

There is no logical way to decide how long is long enough for the Army to occupy a place while its inhabitants are re-educated "to be more like Americans," which is precisely the danger of such foreign entanglements. Even if Uncle Sam were to turn into Pol Pot, the Army could never turn Haitians and Serbs into Americans. The reason for this is that Haitians and Serbs are not Americans. Changing a Haitian into an American is not like changing the parts in a machine. The people whom the US would re-educate to listen to National Public Radio are adults who have grown up in a particular culture, and are thus possessed of the thoughts and ideas of that culture. A few troops walking around with rifles is never going to change that, even if the troops use those rifles to kill the people by the millions.

That is why America’s role as a "global policeman" is more properly referred to as an "open-ended intervention," or as a dictatorship. We have no clear, definable mission in the Balkans such that we can decide when we have done our job and when it is time to go home. We simply decide, ad hoc, when we need to dictate to other people what they ought to do.

Boot’s attitude to foreign policy, of course, is not unique. Had it not been for the close election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden, the Republican Party might not have withdrawn the US Army from the South. Like Boot, the presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, bemoaned during election night that even Reconstruction was too short.

Of course, the Haitians and Serbs have it better than the Confederates. The US Army is not in their back yards as a conquering army of occupation.

As a matter of practical wisdom, we cannot expect the federal government to treat American citizens like free persons when it treats the citizens of other nations, whether Haiti or Yugoslavia, as so many cattle to be herded. The taste of such dictatorial power is sweet and addictive.

Lord Acton had it right: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A nation which holds itself out as an empire around the globe cannot remain a republic at home.

Max Boot is wrong. Bring the troops home now.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.