This article was written by two Fall 2011 Fellows in PSA’s Congressional Fellowship Program. All CFP articles are produced by bipartisan groups of Democrat and Republican Fellows that were challenged to develop opinion pieces that reach consensus on critical national security and foreign affairs issues.
For the vast majority of Americans, watching the last American boot leave Iraqi soil is nothing short of good riddance. The numbers have become seared in Americans minds: Nearly nine years. Nearly a trillion dollars spent. Nearly 35,000 US soldiers wounded. Nearly 4,500 US soldiers dead.
The long-term effect of the Iraq War is pretty obvious—a national sentiment for retrenchment—a streak of isolationism that is being espoused by both sides of the political spectrum. It’s hard not to watch Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry warn against “military adventurism” without comparing him to his predecessor.
But despite the desire to go inward, the simple fact is that if there was any hope for the US to go on the sidelines, that’s changed forever with the onset of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has reminded the world of the danger of failed states. With long-time dictators losing power, militant Salafists (not solely Al Qaeda) are looking to fill the vacuum.
But the Arab Spring also comes with a new challenge—a new type of interventionism.
That new interventionism will not look like Afghanistan of 2009-2011—where we put boots on the ground in order to take out a ruling, rogue power. It will also not look like Pakistan—where our intervention will largely rely on airpower (unmanned predator drones in particular) with a small, light on-the-ground footprint to conduct reconnaissance and special operations, but with no motive to change the leadership.
The new interventionism will be a mix of two factors. Like Pakistan, it will be heavy on airpower, light on boots. Like Afghanistan in 2001, the effort will involve removing a rogue power, but with a slight difference. The intervention will not lead the effort to remove a rogue power, but will enable an indigent rebel to do the job.
In other words, it’s the fullback strategy of foreign intervention. The new intervention does not mean playing the halfback, taking the ball to the endzone for the touchdown. It means playing the full-back, creating the hole for the indigenous rebel groups to score the winning touchdown.
In this case, the main objective is very different. The hope is helping enable a victory on the ground that forestalls a long, drawn out war that creates the type of environment where a terrorist group can take hold.
The merits of the new (or fullback) approach to interventionism contrasts, for example, how the Iraq War was executed. Because the new interventionism does not do the heavy lifting, it doesn’t overrule the will of the people in a given country.
Also, because the interventionism largely relies on airpower, with limited if any boots on the ground, it makes it easier and more likely to develop the type of multilateral coalition that is associated with legitimate and successful interventionist endeavors. And because of the airpower focus and multi-lateralist character of the intervention, the result is greater political legitimacy, a substantially decreased likelihood of casualties, and, therefore, staying power to finish the job.
In short, the new paradigm of successful intervention is not Afghanistan or Pakistan, but Libya. Heavy on firepower, multi-lateralism, and a limited mandate that paves the way for a rebel victory, not a Western one. While the removal of Qaddafi is an enormous immediate benefit, the long-term goal is preventing the drawn-out civil war that would make Libya a terrorist launchpad.
But ignoring the inclination towards isolationism is not only good for the Middle East. Successful, limited intervention also benefits the United States. When the US is involved in liberation that increases US influence in the world. This is not only an upside in the Arab World, but it means improving our soft power in other parts of the world, including areas where we are competing for influence with China.
And it also revives the notion of American humanitarian sway. The greatest casualty of the Iraq War is that it dampened our ability in the eyes of the world. We were distracted from ongoing operations in Afghanistan. We had a slow response to atrocities in Darfur. Now, the fullback humanitarian approach is attached to the heightened likelihood of intervention. That could have a deterrent effect on would be genocidaires and reinvigorates the idea of American power.
It’s not easy to ignore a nine-year war where America lost valuable blood and treasure. But isolationism is the easy approach. Isolationism was the approach after 1919 and the world was in the midst of another world war twenty years later. The goal is not taking the ball and going home. The goal is finding a pragmatic approach that means greater political stability, the return of American influence, and the preservation of innocent life. Just don’t call it leading from behind.