U.S. wars tend to be presented as protecting rights and humanitarian ideals, but this masks the destruction and suffering they inflict. A vital lesson remains unlearned: Military intervention perpetuates, rather than resolves, humanitarian crisis.
The U.S. repeatedly fails to learn this lesson as a result of “American exceptionalism”: a powerful mythology that tells us global crises demand U.S. intervention, typically by the military.
This mythology resonates throughout popular culture, offering a convenient tool for policymakers who bank on its nearly unassailable appeal. People want to act when they see suffering; Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bombardment of civilians and the self-styled Islamic State’s sexual enslavement of women trigger a clarion call to do something. The urge is compounded by years of reassurances that the U.S. is the “only indispensable nation.”
Policymakers exploit this impulse to generate public support for airstrikes, weapons sales, military training, and more. They recognize that other rationales are less palatable. If people were presented with the Syrian civil war as a proxy battle for influence between states, with the U.S. backing the region’s anti-democratic monarchies, the public appetite for military intervention would wane before such realpolitik.
In our failure to learn history’s lesson to avoid military intervention, we unleash destruction that sows the seeds of the next war. We minimize the suffering caused by military action, a reality apparent in the vernacular of “pinpoint accuracy” in attack targeting and “collateral damage” in civilian casualties. Policymakers present military intervention as an uncomplicated and even obvious solution to crisis. Yet, look at Iraq, still embroiled in violence more than 13 years after the U.S. declared “mission accomplished.” Or look at Libya, where U.S.-led NATO strikes created a political vacuum that destabilized an entire region.
When the Syrian crisis ends, it won’t be because the U.S. bombed the right targets. It will be thanks to a negotiated solution that addresses community needs. When the so-called Islamic State crumbles for good, it won’t be because the U.S. has taken out the right leaders. It will be when recruitment dries up as people reject the group’s extremist agenda. These conditions for lasting peace lie in the hands of local peacebuilders, many of whom are local women organizing to sustain their communities.
Yet U.S. policymakers pivot time and again to the easy recourse of military action. No front-running presidential candidate of either dominant party levels a serious critique. In a foreign policy speech, Hillary Clinton put forward her plans to defeat the so-called Islamic State, outlining her first step to “take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground.” Diplomacy came second. It’s not saying much when she appears more reasonable than her unhinged Republican opponent.
We can learn history’s lesson and re-imagine the dangerous ways U.S. policymakers have hijacked people’s urge to act. Learning the lesson to avert military intervention will not mean inaction in the face of suffering, but rather a reorientation of our impulse to do good toward humanitarian aid and in support of grass-roots peace building.