Why the U.S. Should be Wary of Calls for Foreign Intervention | Opinion

As the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. In the minds of many, it also comes with great expectations.

China's military modernization and Russia's proficiency in hacking and disinformation aside, the U.S. military is still the finest fighting force on the planet. U.S. commanders in a war room in Tampa Bay, Florida, can plan a mission against a hard target and watch on their giant flat-screen televisions as U.S. special operations forces, bombers and unmanned drones execute it quickly and proficiently. This is a military that has won countless tactical engagements in the field and bloodied the nose of adversaries throughout history, whether it was a tin-pot dictator like the late Manuel Noriega or Wagner Group mercenaries in eastern Syria.

The U.S. military, though, frequently runs into trouble when policymakers and decision-makers back in Washington are either overconfident about what Americans in uniform can achieve or assume that rosy projections will pan out. The U.S. war in Iraq is this century's golden case study for the humanitarian and strategic disaster that can occur when elites in Washington overhype a supposed foreign threat and become eerily convinced removing that threat is a relatively fast and painless proposition. A failure to anticipate first, second and third order consequences often leads to deeper, inescapable issues for the United States, making what was thought to be a cakewalk into a painful, humble exercise in futility for the entire world to see.

This is all the more reason why U.S. presidents need to demonstrate the requisite wisdom and restraint during high-pressure situations—and equally important, why those very same presidents must always be skeptical when some stakeholder recommends U.S. intervention.

The Biden administration received a lot of these calls over the last several days, many of them originating in the Western Hemisphere. Last week's brazen, midnight assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse led the interim Haitian authorities to put in a request for U.S. troops to safeguard the country's ports, airports and fuel depots. That request has been amplified by a prominent columnist in The Washington Post, who strongly insinuated that a failure to heed Haiti's call would be a tacit admission of U.S. fecklessness.

The largest anti-government demonstrations in over 25 years are happening in Cuba. Hardline Cuban dissidents and exiles in Miami are encouraging the White House to launch some sort of an intervention to protect and promote the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez even floated U.S. air strikes on Cuba as a "potential option" that should be discussed. Sure, U.S. interventions, economic sanctions, embargoes and covert plots on the island have been unmitigated failures for the last 60 years, but nobody likes to see ordinary Cubans beaten and arrested by corrupt, overweight enforcers of the Cuban government, right?

American flags hang inside the Oculus
American flags hang inside the Oculus transit hub at One World Trade Center on June 20, 2021, in New York City. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Thousands of miles away, foreign officials are clamoring for U.S. military assistance as well. The Afghan government, the beneficiary of 20 years and $2 trillion of U.S. taxpayer money, is clearly agitating for U.S. troops to stay put (even if Afghan President Ashraf Ghani doesn't say so openly). In Somalia, the government in Mogadishu would like nothing more than for the Biden administration to not only resume its predecessors' aggressive drone strike campaign against Al-Shabab, but to redeploy the hundreds of U.S. special operations forces that pulled out of Somalia last December.

For U.S. officials, the calls for aid can be dizzying. It can also be emotionally overwhelming, because a failure to meet them can weigh on your conscience or tar you as a cold-hearted Machiavellian unsympathetic to the plight of others. Despite a newfound respect in Washington for a foreign policy of realism and restraint, the urge to ride to the rescue and rid the world of despots, autocrats, kleptocrats and incompetents still lingers over Uncle Sam like a bad cold in the dead of winter. The bias for action remains strong and is at times too powerful to resist.

But on many occasions, resisting those temptations is frequently the best course of action. This is certainly the case in places like Haiti, Cuba, Somalia, or Afghanistan, states that have been in a state of de-facto anarchy for decades are dealing with seemingly incurable ailments like corrupt and fragile (to non-existent) institutions, or (in the case of Cuba) are extremely minor geopolitical players.

Can anyone, for instance, argue with a straight face that deploying U.S. troops to Haiti, a nation whose 200-plus year history is filled with extensive violence, coups, political turmoil, economic malaise and bad luck, is the correct diagnosis to the multitude of problems Haitians faced, even before Moïse's assassination? Given the U.N.'s controversial history in the country, can we even be sure a foreign peacekeeping mission in any capacity would build a better Haiti? Would the same formula, or even an altered version of it, bring a sense of peace and tranquility to Somalia, the Horn of Africa nation where disorder and hyper-localized governance is a fact of life? How would this be any different from what Washington tried and failed to achieve in Afghanistan over the last 20 years?

From the outside, intervening in a dicey situation can seem like the easy solution to a devil of a problem. Too frequently, though, it turns out to be the wrong one. And Americans in uniform are at the butt-end of the consequences through no fault of their own.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.