America’s Overreliance on Military Intervention

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A couple of months ago, conflict erupted over whether or not President Trump was sympathetic enough when making a call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in action during a counterterror operation in Niger, on October 4, 2017. Yet nowhere near enough attention was paid to the heartbreaking images of Myeshia Johnson clutching her husband’s casket, and hardly any attention whatsoever was paid to questions of why American troops are in Niger in the first place.

Senior U.S. Senators tasked with oversight of foreign policy even feigned ignorance of America’s current role in Niger. How did we get to the point where we have so many troops in so many places that not even members of Congress, let alone average Americans, can keep track of it all? The scholarship of Monica Duffy Toft, Professor at Tuft’s University and Director of the Fletcher School’s Center for Strategic Studies, provides us with an answer.

Interventions up, success down

Duffy Toft analyzed America’s 392 military interventions that have occurred since our country’s founding, and discovered that two periods stood out for having a high number of military interventions—the Cold War era (1948-91), and post-Cold War period in which we live today (1991-present). She also found that while military interventions since World War II have rarely achieved their intended political objectives, U.S. military interventions have actually increased after the Cold War. “While the U.S. engaged in 46 military interventions from 1948-1991, from 1992-2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.”

The obvious question, then, is “if U.S. military interventions are failing more often, what accounts for the dramatic increase in their use since 1991?” 

Start by understanding why interventions were higher during the Cold War.

Post World War II, the internationalism required to rebuild a world rocked by conflict and the global reach of U.S. forces—our ability to project force to anywhere in the world, an ability we uniquely hold to this day—provided both the justification for intervention and the means to intervene. During the Cold War too, the U.S. had an ideological reason for interventions and felt an existential threat from the Soviet Union.

But why is America intervening more today, with no peer competitor and when fewer vital interests are at stake, even while the likely success of an intervention remains low? The answer, according to Duffy Toft, is that American politicians are overoptimistic about interventions because these politicians suffer from short-termism—a faulty evaluation of the time and resources it will take to achieve an objective.

Policymakers’ short-termism persists for three reasons: First, a country will use interventions to cling to its identity—in Vietnam, politicians saw us as fulfilling our duty to stop the spread of communism and lead the free world. Second, the cost of an unsuccessful intervention is relatively low for America—we are not at risk of invasion from Canada if we exhaust ourselves militarily in the Middle East. Third, our interventions, successful or not, are seen as valuable signals to both allies and adversaries that we are tough.

Another factor is that there are sadly political benefits from failed interventions. According to Duffy Toft, “the benefits for political elites in Washington, D.C., of looking tough outweigh the costs and risks of failure, which can almost always be blamed on factors beyond their control, or on political opponents or third parties.” 

Kicking the habit

It is astonishing that in an era where the U.S. spends $700 billion on defense each year, higher in real terms than we spent at the height of the Cold War and two times as much as China and Russia combined, policymakers continue to tell us that we should feel insecure. So much so, that we must fight any bad actor that exists, anywhere on the globe. The U.S. has more than 6,000 troops in Africa alone, with military operations underway in roughly 20 of Africa’s 54 countries.

The problem is that, as Duffy Toft puts it, “Washington oftentimes intervenes military when it should not—and our security and prosperity have both suffered because of it.” Not only do misguided interventions risk destabilizing an already troubled region even further, but our addiction to interventions provides an opportunity for competitors who are far outmatched militarily, to find chinks in America’s armor. In other words, our excessive interventions offer countries like Iran, China, or Russia the opportunity to do harm to America and increase their prestige and standing. That makes America less safe.

How does America kick its intervention habit? Monica Duffy Toft recommends that we “increas[e] economic and diplomatic power and reserv[e] military power for vital interests rather than spreading our values.” Toft continues that “the ideal U.S. counter to Chinese, Russian, Iranian, and North Korean strategies is to avoid the [preventive] use of armed force … and to devote a greater share of resources to [economic and social] resilience.” 

I would also add two things to Duffy Toft’s analysis: America needs both a rule that policymakers should try to live by and a mechanism to hold policymakers to the rule. The rule should be that policymakers only intervene when America’s vital interests—our territorial integrity, our prosperity, or our way of life—are threatened, where that threat has been debated and voted on by Congress, and where there is an achievable objective and a concrete exit strategy. The mechanism to enforce the rule is the Constitution, which reasons that the executive, overeager for war, will be checked by the Congress, which is accountable to the people.

Several months ago, the Senate voted against ending the 16-year-old 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF), which is the legal basis (stretched beyond recognition) by which American troops are spread across Africa and the Middle East today. The AUMF is not specific enough and could last as long as radicalized forms of Islam—a religion with almost two billion adherents—exist anywhere in the world. Congress owes it to the American people to vote on a new, specific AUMF before intervening abroad.


Willis L. Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas and works in the financial services industry.



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