The Book Club

A Poor Track Record of Pacification

Dear Max,

I was so taken by the derring-do of Smedley Butler, Fighting Fred Funston, Chesty Puller, and the other forgotten Pax Americanistas you describe so well in your Savage Wars of Peace that I almost ran out and joined the Marine Corps. Then I remembered that I was living in the 21st century, not to mention getting fat and going bald.

You’re right, the United States has a long, pre-Cold-War history of intervening in other countries affairs—something that only Americans seem to have forgotten. And, yes, in the days before America’s political leaders became obsessed with overwhelming force and zero casualties, they almost routinely sent small forces out on risky foreign missions with minimal public support and no exit strategy. But no, I don’t think we should get in the habit of doing so again. In today’s world, unilateral military interventions are as likely to succeed as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are to rise from the dead.

I’m not talking about protective or punitive missions. As you correctly point out, the U.S. military is going to be busier than ever safeguarding U.S. citizens abroad and hunting down killers and kidnappers like the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the Philippines. Instead, I’m talking about the “pacification” missions that you recommend the United States take on “to help the downtrodden of the world,” whether fighting tribalism or gangsterism or intervening in civil wars. While I agree with you that “a world of liberal democracies would be a world much more amenable to American interests than any conceivable alternative,” I think that solo pacification efforts by even a relatively benign hegemony won’t get us there.

For starters, with the exception of the Philippines, our track record on pacification isn’t all that good. In fact, one of the main lessons I took away from the repeated interventions you catalog is that Uncle Sam needed the equivalent of special ed for imperialists, because he seems to have had a hard time learning from his mistakes, especially close to home. Look at our occupation of Haiti in the 1910s and 1920s. Yeah, we left the Haitians a lot of roads, bridges, airfields, etc. But we also force-fed them a constitution and a president, stoked racism, censored the press, and revived forced labor. While I give you great credit for covering both the good and the bad of U.S. behavior—and you get extra points not only for telling a good story but using the word “tatterdemalion”—somehow I’m not consoled by your conclusion that the natives had never had it so good.

Or consider Nicaragua. After Calvin Coolidge sent the Marines into Nicaragua for an encore in 1926, following their earlier 14-year engagement, Walter Lippmann acidly observed that Nicaragua “was not an independent republic, that its government is the creature of the State Department, that management of its finances and the direction of its domestic and foreign affairs are determined not in Nicaragua but in Wall Street.” You argue that in Nicaragua, “democracy was a foreign transplant that did not take, in part because America would not stick around long enough to cultivate it.” But for one country to control the government of another for more than a decade seems like a strange way to cultivate democracy. And while I don’t agree with leftist dogma that blames the U.S. military occupation of Haiti and Nicaragua for their current status as global basket-cases, it’s hard to argue that the U.S. intervention had any overall positive effect.

Moving from the past to the present, it’s hard to see why any unilateral “pacification” effort would be any more successful in today’s loser states than it was generally in the past. After all, most of the problems that prompted Uncle Sam to swing his big stick in the Caribbean and Central America 60 years ago seem quaint compared to the challenges posed by Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, North Korea, or Sierra Leone. In fact, I’d argue that even with America’s overwhelming military power, everything from the spread of cheap automatic weapons to 24/seven global media coverage have made intervention in many ways more difficult rather than less. And let’s not even talk about how hard it would be for any one nation, even the United States, to muster the resources needed for the state-building that must inevitably follow. Afghanistan is a case in point. We’ve easily spent more than $10 billion fighting the war but have pledged less than one-twentieth that amount for assistance and reconstruction. That kind of money won’t do the trick, and Congress is unlikely to significantly increase it.

I agree with you that U.S. political leaders should get over their fear of casualties and that the U.S. military should get over its obsession with overwhelming force (though not junk the Powell Doctrine, of which overwhelming force is only a small part). But for a whole host of reasons that I’m sure we’ll get into, the only way for the United States to get involved to lasting good effect in this century’s version of the savage wars of peace is with international sanction and international support. There, I’ve outed myself as a liberal internationalist. Let’s put away the pith helmets and bring back the United Nations.