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America’s History of Intervention in Foreign Nations

Historians discuss America's history of military and political intervention in foreign nations.

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    For historical perspectives, we're joined by two men who've written extensively on American diplomacy and the use of American power. James Chace, a professor of government at Bard College in New York. And Philip Zelikow, professor of history at the University of Virginia and director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs. And joining them is one of our regulars, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, director of the Dole Institute at the University of Kansas.

    Welcome to you all, and Richard beginning with you, has the United States taken this kind of action before — that is a preemptive military assault, to force a change of regime, in a country that has not attacked us?


    We have, although, you know, we were rather late for this whole business of empire. Remember we were more of an isolationist than an interventionist country.

    It was the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century that ushered us somewhat reluctantly onto the world stage; even as it was going on, there was an enormous debate which involved President McKinley at the White House, among others, as to whether the United States would be a liberating or an occupying power.

    And in the end it was decided that we would keep the Philippines, we would not liberate them, in fact until 1946.

    Repeatedly in the first half of the 20th century, American presidents of both parties sent Marines throughout the western hemisphere in particular — usually for economic interests.

    It was sometimes hard to tell whether American foreign policy was being made at the State Department or the United Fruit Company, which was known as "the Octopus" by Latinos.

    All of that began to change, intervention in fact was redefined with the advent of the Cold War, the creation of the CIA, instead of the Marines storming the beaches we had covert operations; Guatemala in 1953; in Iran we put the shah back on the Peecock throne. So I think when we're talking about intervention, we want to be very careful not to limit it to traditional military operations.


    Professor Chace, given that we have a long and rich history of intervention, but what about really military invasion as opposed to covert operations, would you say there's a long history, even if you define it by the military, as a military assault?


    Of course there have been direct military assaults as well with the aim of changing regime.

    For example, Wilson sent in 1914, I believe, troops into Mexico to change the regime. He failed to do so, by the way, but he certainly tried to.

    Regime changes were made a number of times, in order to, by sending troops in, sending Marines in, in order to try to make a regime responsive to economic needs, to be, in other words, stable.

    More recently, however, of course, we have sent troops into Panama, roughly 30,000 troops out in the Panama Canal zone in to Panama itself to arrest Noriega, which we succeeded in doing and therefore to change the regime. We, of course, sent troops into Haiti, also to change the regime. And we might very well have kept troops in Somalia, also to change the regime.

    So we have certainly used military action in order to do so. In fact, we also sent troops during the Gulf War under President Bush's father. And the aim really was to change the regime in Iraq — to get Saddam Hussein out.

    However, we were unsuccessful in doing so.


    Professor Zelikow, what would you add to that?

    First of all do you share that assessment that there is a real long history here, and what would you add to it?


    There is a long history here. What's different this time is that the reasons for considering American intervention are dramatically different.

    In the past, we've intervened for regional stability, for reasons of human rights, because we thought there might be an indirect threat of the United States.

    Here the rationale is that if we don't intervene, a country may develop weapons of mass destruction that might be used directly against America or one of its friends. Now, that's different.

    The only precedent I can think of that's directly on point is an invasion that didn't happen. It was President Kennedy's decision to invade Cuba if diplomacy failed to get Soviet missiles off that island. And he was quite prepared to first launch a major air strike and then if necessary invade that island rather than let America tolerate the threat he thought would be posed by weapons of mass destruction there. And in a way that's more analogous to the kind of threat that's motivating consideration of this possible intervention against Iraq.

    I'll add — differing with Professor Chace — President Bush in 1991 did not have the objective of overthrowing the Iraqi regime; they deliberately considered whether to make that one their objectives, and whether you disagree with it or not, they made a very considered decision not to make that one of their objectives.


    Professor Chace?


    Well, I would say it was an implied objective. They were not certainly willing to go into Baghdad in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein. But I do believe that they would certainly have preferred Saddam Hussein to have abandoned the regime. And I think that the administration at that time very much hoped that would happen.

    But it's also true, as Professor Zelikow points out, that President Bush at that time was very much worried about instability in the region. So it was a delicate balance that went on. And you can argue on either side, whether President Bush senior was actually successful in what he was trying to do.


    Richard Smith, pick up on the point Phil Zelikow made about how different this rationale is, that is, it's to anticipate and head off a future threat, one that involves the nature of weaponry, rather than the litany of some of the other reasons you gave: economic interests, ideological confrontation and so on?


    Sure. Well, you know, we don't want to be prisoners of history. We want whatever perspective it affords, but there are unprecedented situations. And I think Professor Zelikow is quite right in his interpretation of this.

    I would add that the whole nature of intervention, as I said earlier, as it has evolved, and the weapons available to various presidents have evolved, so has the justification.

    Interestingly enough, there has always been a Wilsonian strain in American foreign policy, an idealistic belief in self-determination, and in some ways it was suppressed during the Cold War because everything was seen through the prism of U.S./Soviet rivalry, including intervention.

    Since the end of the Cold War, look what happened in Bosnia, for example. There was an enormous intervention by a coalition of western forces to try to remove a genocidal dictator, Slobodan Milosevic; earlier during the Cold War almost certainly that would not happened, because it would not have been defined as being in America's immediate national interest.

    So these unprecedented situations do arise; intervention is redefined in some ways as the threats are redefined.


    Professor Chace, would you agree with that, that the reasons change as our definition of our national interest changes?


    Well absolutely. It's a question of how we see threat. There have not been military threats against the United States, except at that point, which Professor Zelikow referred to in Cuba when Soviet missiles were in place.

    But we do interpret threats differently. There is the question of what we perceive as an ideological threat. Are interventions covert especially in the western hemisphere against Guatemala, indirectly against Chile as well, and certainly against Castro in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. These were essentially ideological threats. Our fear that communism would spread in the western hemisphere and ultimately perhaps undermine certain institutions in the United States, so it's the nature of threat that has changed over time.

    Now it is a question of possible military threat to the United States — military in the sense that, in the case of Iraq, that we may be talking about the possession of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. So we redefining the threat differently. Once again going back to the Gulf War of President Bush senior.

    The real reason that the United States went into that war was to assure the flow of oil and reasonable prices and that no country such as Iraq would have large control over the region. That was not what was usually given as the reason — except when the Secretary of State James Baker, when asked why we went into Iraq at that time, said the reason was jobs, jobs, jobs… That was as close as he came to really speaking openly about the notion that a vital resource could be denied the United States.


    Phil Zelikow, you began this colloquy about the nature of the threat and how different this was, except for the Cuban Missile Crisis. What are your thoughts on how that has evolved through history, in other words, why it evolves, why it changes?


    Well, it's changed with the nature of threats themselves. In an era where nations are battling for trade routes or colonies or commerce, and those are their most important interests, naturally conflicts are fought around that.

    In an era where the greatest threat to our country's safety is the weapons of mass destruction that confer the powers that used to belong to armies and fleets, to small groups of people, well then, our military defenses against those threats also must change.

    And Margaret, let me add that another big difference between the Iraqi case and some of the historical cases is that we're already in a state of open hostilities against Iraq. We've been in an open state of hostilities against Iraq for years.

    Now, they don't get on the front page very much, but the president knows because he has to prove them, we're engaged in military combat operations over Iraq almost every day. We're maintaining with our military power a protected zone of, in northern Iraq, where the Kurds are allowed to have a nation defended by the constant use of American force or threat of force. We are policing Iraq right now with planes flying patrols every day. So we're already in a state of low-level war with Iraq at the moment.

    So if there's a transition, it won't be a transition from a nation with which we're at peace to a nation that suddenly we attack.

    This is a nation that is already in open hostilities against us, it's tried to kill President Bush, it's tried to do other things against Americans, and we're in operations against them every day.


    Would you also say that a corollary difference — or parallel difference is the open nature of this debate? Senator Biden and the Senate is now starting this huge open debate which they hope to continue. Is that unusual?


    Yes. There is almost a deliberate theatrical quality to the way this issue is being ramped up for national attention that also seems unusual historically. And maybe that's an artifact of our media age.

    In part it's an artifact of how much power America has, that we have the luxury to deliberate in a careful way about what may be an acute threat to the United States without being impelled to act on the force of events.


    Richard Smith, your thoughts on that, the unusualness of this public debate?


    Well, only in a democracy. I mean, that's a great irony is democratic values in the end that we and our allies are sworn to defend. And I said to someone earlier today, the only thing this week that's getting more publicity than our prospective invasion of Iraq is Bruce Springsteen. I think there goes our tactical surprise.


    All right. And there goes our time. Thank you, gentlemen, very much.