Leave the Little Wars Alone

By Benjamin Schwarz

8 June 1992 Los Angeles Times


The outcry urging the United States to intervene in Yugoslavia’s conflict reflects a dangerously broader ambition: to have America take up savage wars of peace.

In the past month, American foreign-policy commentators have been arguing nearly unanimously that the West must send an unambiguous signal that the killing and violation of minority rights in Yugoslavia will not be tolerated. Therefore, they maintain, the United States must be prepared to lead an armed coalition to stop the brutality. This measure is required, according to the opinion writers in Washington, not only to ensure humane behavior, but also to protect American security interests. Sarajevo, we are reminded, was the cradle of World War I. America has a commitment to European security, and therefore, it is argued, Yugoslavia’s war is America’s concern. Finally, we are told that America’s security demands not only a stable Europe but a peaceful world. Only decisive Western action will deter ethnic and irredentist conflict around the increasingly unstable globe.

These arguments are specious. The suffering in Yugoslavia is terrible, but no more so than that in Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka or Liberia, whose tragedies have not provoked a similar resolute cry for humanitarian intervention. Is such intervention to be selectively applied to Yugoslavia on the morally indefensible grounds that white Europeans are the ones being slaughtered? On the other hand, moral advocacy for intervention in every conflict without discrimination sets a task for America that is both Herculean and, given the unfailing human capacity for enmity and viciousness, Sisyphean.

The security argument is just as weak. Contrary to what Atlanticists may insist, America does not have a strategic imperative to prevent any untoward event in Europe.

Since 1917, the United States has intervened on behalf of European security not to quell suffering or disorder, but in pursuit of the far more limited aim of preventing a single power’s dominance of the Continent, which would ultimately threaten America’s own security. Internal conflict in Yugoslavia does not meet that threshold. While the fighting there could lead to interstate conflicts in the region, these wars would not intrinsically threaten American interests. America’s policy cannot be to entangle itself in ancient disputes so as to remove the temptations for the Balkans, or others, to commit foolish and self-destructive acts.

Finally, comparisons to World War I actually point to policies antithetical to the ones proposed. The fuse for that war was lit in Sarajevo not because ethnic conflict existed in what is now Yugoslavia, but because great powers meddled in those conflicts.

While the arguments for intervention in Yugoslavia are weak, they are significant in that they portend a trend toward a radical and potentially dangerous enlargement of America’s interests. Speaking to Naval Academy graduates last month, President Bush warned that with the end of the Cold War old threats had receded only to be replaced with new ones. Drawing attention to the conflicts in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, Bush maintained that resurgent ethnic rivalry and internal disorder is the new threat to peace and–by illogical extension–to American interests.

The President is half right. Yugoslavia’s war is the war of the future. Around the globe, warring tribes harboring centuries-old grudges about language, religion and territory will be killing each other and engendering local chaos for some time to come. Such disorder, however, does not in itself threaten American interests, unless those interests are lavishly broadened to include the pursuit of world order, peace and justice.

The collapse of the East-West rivalry permits the United States to entertain the most grandiose objectives across the globe. If America takes this opportunity to pursue a new foreign-policy vision that closely identifies instability with threats to the nation itself, it risks becoming a global policeman and social worker. The argument that intervention in Yugoslavia is necessary to deter future internecine conflicts begs the question: What if deterrence fails? America may find itself involved in domestic squabbles from Moldova to Peru that are likely to be prolonged, inconclusive and brutalizing to all concerned.

Foreign instabilities can be durably quelled only by native solutions. Arriving at these solutions can take centuries and will often be bloody. Identifying U.S. security interests with the pacification of such conflicts is extravagant folly. The object of foreign policy cannot be to transform societies or to change men’s hearts. Defending America’s security by containing, deterring and fighting a hostile country is one thing; attempting that defense by fundamentally influencing internal change is quite another. When America has attempted to do so in the past–in the Philippines, in Iran, in Vietnam, in Lebanon–the result has been spectacular failure.

Enforcing acceptable behavior in foreign lands is a burden best not taken up. It is ironic that, while the impetus for such attempts may largely arise from a desire for a kinder, gentler world, the moral risks of intervention are at least as great as the palpable ones. By defining instability and injustice as a threat, the United States will perforce adopt a posture approximating paranoia in what promises to be a chaotic world. And, in making others the objects of our generous interests, we will almost inevitably succumb to making them the objects of our coercion. The President spoke at the Naval Academy of America’s global role, dictated by a “moral force that’s born of its founding ideals.” But perhaps America’s founders enjoined us not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy for fear of the monster we may create at home.

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