As a 22-year-old college student, I recognize I am not expected to speak on foreign policy. Yet I write today as both a Marine Corps brat and a concerned citizen who has seen his country in a state of war for the greater part of his life. I was only nine years old when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, but since that time, I have heard of nothing but wars and rumors of wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.
During the Bush Administration, many spoke out against U.S. military engagements abroad. But since President Obama took office in 2009, anti–war sentiments have been much more subdued. The duration and distant nature of the wars, combined with Americans’ overall lack of personal connection to members of the Armed Forces, have significantly diminished the average citizen’s ability to understand the human cost associated with our presence there.
U.S. and coalition casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan now total 8,217 people. The Iraq Body Count project reports that the Iraq War has caused a massive 121,614 to 134,950 civilian casualties, but even more staggeringly, a new 2013 study suggests that violence and wartime conditions have been responsible for over 500,000 civilian deaths.
Sadly, our government has a poor track record when it comes to picking wars and interventions. Much as the constant threat of terrorism breeds fear and encourages big government today, the fear of communism justified U.S. lawlessness and interventionism abroad for the greater part of the 20th century. The CIA has now led operations in countries all around the globe, doing everything from gathering intelligence to training insurgents to funding propaganda efforts.
Through it all, America has been far from consistent in its Western ideals, in several cases opting to oust democratically elected governments. Perhaps the most famous of these was the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh of Iran in 1953.
At other times, U.S. interventionism has inadvertently paved the way for bloody dictators. In 2000, the CIA admitted to being heavily involved in the ousting of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende of Chile, which led to the rise of the authoritarian Augusto Pinochet in 1973. This dictator would go on to kill over 3,000 of his own people and torture nearly 30,000 others. During my two years as a missionary in Chile, I was able to see just how negatively some view such involvement in the affairs of others.
More than once, our interventionism has not only fueled anti-American sentiments but directly backfired. In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration gave weapons and billions of dollars of aid to Afghanistan in their fight against the Soviet Union. During this same time, the U.S. provided Iraq with intelligence in their war against Iran, turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. And at the same time, the U.S. was also selling weapons to Iran, which resulted in the infamous Iran-Contra Scandal. Similarly, years later, we can fully appreciate the repercussions of our meddling in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While our wars and foreign entanglements keep most people more or less oblivious to the subtler realities of the American empire, military families such as my own experience it firsthand. During my family’s six-year deployment to Okinawa, Japan, we saw massive protests from those who didn’t want our facilities on their island. At the time, this broke my heart – I loved the Okinawans and couldn’t understand why some were so unhappy. In hindsight, I can hardly blame them.
All told, the United States has over 145,000 troops overseas, not including the 40,000 involved in operations in Afghanistan and other undisclosed regions. We have some kind of military facility in nearly 180 countries. Though the majority are small, with staffs of under 20 people, many are exceptionally large. Japan hosts 54,000 U.S. service members; Germany, 47,000; the United Kingdom, 13,000; Italy, 11,000. Several others maintain staffs of between 1,000 and 5,000, such as the bases in Turkey, Bahrain, Spain, and Portugal.
It all sounds eerily imperialistic. And I can’t help but wonder – would we be supportive of other superpowers who adopted similar policies? It’s hard to imagine a fully-equipped Russian or Chinese military base in Cuba or Venezuela being seen as anything short of a declaration of war. A friend of mine recently pointed out that despite strong American criticism of Russia’s recent occupation of Crimea, it’s difficult to argue that the U.S. would react any differently if one of our host countries suffered a tumultuous revolution and the rise of a popular anti-American government.
There’s also the sheer cost of the military-industrial complex. Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government estimates that the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars will ultimately cost $6 trillion dollars – the equivalent of more than a third of the national debt. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. government’s budget is spent on defense, a sum that in 2011 famously exceeded the defense spending of the next 13 countries combined. America’s self-proclaimed prerogative to police the world, even if morally justified, is monetarily unsustainable.
The heart of the matter is that, despite our intelligence programs, superpower military and best intentions, we often don’t know what we are getting into. We never know if the groups we are arming will one day fight against us or if the government we are putting in power will be good for their people or for ours. We never know when our wars will spiral out of control and turn into quagmires like Iraq or Vietnam.
As we face the evolving crisis in Ukraine, I pray our leaders remember these lessons of the past and recognize that the situation is almost certainly more complex than meets the eye. Should we support a Ukraine that insists on retaining Crimea, when 60 percent of the region identifies as Russian? We have traditionally supported self-determination: If the Crimeans want to join Russia or declare independence, should we stop them? Thus far, I am unconvinced that taking sides on a civil war on the other side of the world is crucial to our national security. Rather, I fear that any involvement will likely create more enemies than sympathizers.
It is time to revisit the guidance of our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson famously taught: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations…entangling alliances with none.” In light of the consequences of past interventionism, I am becoming ever more convinced that the best foreign policy is one of peace, trade and diplomacy. We need to let other nations resolve their own conflicts.
Contact Josh Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.