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By Bill Shunas
In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Chicago to participate in the dedication of a bridge. Instead of speaking about the new engineering marvel, he chose the occasion to make a foreign policy statement. He basically said that the United States and allies must oppose the efforts of inhumane expansionism and violation of international agreements undertaken by Japan, Germany and Italy. At that time Japan had invaded China, and Germany and Italy were interfering in the Spanish Civil War. Roosevelt's opinions about warring with Japan and Germany were highly unpopular in this country which still had the horrors of World War I in mind.
This reminds one of today's debates where Obama pushed for action in Syria because of their inhumane use of chemical weapons which would also be a violation of the sanctity of international agreement. This came at a time when this country's people are sick of war because of Afghanistan and Iraq and want no more involvement.
Why do men (and women some day soon in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher) like to self-righteously use their war toys to straighten out someone who's being inhumane? The thought might be commendable, but often the result is not. And sometimes saving someone from some dire consequences has been the excuse to send in American troops when the real reason was to promote the interests of American corporations. This is nothing new. We've always found a good reason to intervene.
After World War I, one of the most decorated soldiers up to that time, retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, spoke of his continual role in the process. "ì helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested." Butler also said, "I spent 33 years in the Marines, most of my time being a high class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short I was a racketeer for Capitalism." Now we are in a new century, but the same thing goes on.
The armed services may have served as muscle men for big business, but can it be a force for good as the recruitment ads put it? I have been mostly unhappy with the Obama presidency, but one of the better things he seems to be doing is slowly extricating us from Middle East entanglements (except for those damn drones). Even though he made the major mistake of drawing a red line, maybe his intentions in Syria were for some kind of humanitarian intervention. We would send a signal that chemical weapons are forbidden. Maybe that's all he planned - nothing greater. I would imagine his advisors were and are having second and third thoughts about supporting the Syrian rebels.
When the United States sends troops or air power to intervene somewhere we always have righteousness on our side. So we say. There is a possibility that we may. However, even if there is a good humanitarian reason for US intervention, there will be blowback, the same as there was in places like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic that Smedley Butler talked about. One of the more famous and hurtful examples of unintended consequences was the sending of aid and giving of training to the rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s. From that came the corps of Al Qaeda.
The blowback could be and often is less obvious. A couple of years ago we intervened in Libya with air power to aid the rebels in overthrowing Ghadafi. Was that humanitarian because Ghadafi was a dictator or was it one of those self-interest things because Ghadafi was enabling African countries to become independent of western powers? Whichever it was, there was blowback. There was an unleashing of various rebel forces, and following that there was an attack on the US consulate last year in Benghazi which resulted in a dead ambassador.
Of course it would be nice to aid civilians and the democratic forces in Syria. It would be nice to make sure chemical weapons no longer get used. Maybe we need a good war like FDR had. However, with humanitarian military intervention, there is a certain amount of illogic involved. Why take some actions and not others? Are more innocents dying in Syria or the Congo? Too many countries need humanitarian intervention. Some are allies. How do you choose a target? And if you take action, what force level and period of action is best? Nothing is sure. In Syria, what would be the best results? There's supposed to have been more than a thousand killed by chemical weapons. There's supposed to be about a hundred thousand total dead in the war. Do we take a chance of clouding the situation further and maybe increasing the body count to prove a point about chemical weapons? By the way, notice the rising body count in Iraq these days.
What I do know is that there seems to often be a knee jerk reaction by presidents, advisors and Secretaries of Whatever to use military force. This is usually force directed against anybody who doesn't fit into our geo-political mode. This may include taking action for no other reason than to show the rest of the world that we mean it. It may or may not coincide with a righteous humanitarian intervention. If it does not coincide with a righteous cause, then we will certainly be told that it coincides with a righteous cause. And then whatever military action is taken will have unintended consequences.
By the way, we have problems here at home. The post World War II experience has taught many lessons. A main lesson should be that (sorry LBJ) we can't have guns and butter. This is an absurd situation. It is a double whammy. We overspend our treasure on our military adventures resulting in fatal blowback. At the same time we find ways to fail to use our wealth at home. The middle class continues to shrink. The poor are no longer mentioned. The writing is on the wall. It's time to stop pretending to be a superpower.
Bill Shunas is a Vietnam veteran, author and VVAW member in the Chicago chapter.