President Obama hinted that America should not act as “the world’s policeman” in his address to the nation on Syria last week, but he then spent more time reinforcing American exceptionality; an idea that historically has inspired military interventions with disastrous consequences.
The speech seemed to indicate that Obama doesn’t want to go to war, but his rhetoric that the U.S.’s “ideals and principles" are"at stake" in Syria keeps the possibility of military intervention open, and that’s very problematic.
Many people jump to associate today’s situation in Syria with the most recent instances of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.Yet the U.S.’s track record of military intervention dates back much farther.
Take Operation Condor, the U.S.-supported, state-sponsored terrorist coalition of Latin American militaries that wreaked havoc in several countries during the 1970s and '80s.
Last week, everyone remembered the tragic events that took place in the on Sept. 11, 2001. But it was also the 40th anniversary of another tragic date: Sept. 11, 1973, when the U.S. secretly helped Chile’s military assassinate the country’s first democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.
Allende’s replacement? None other than the ultra-destructive General Augusto Pinochet, who spent the next 17 years ordering the torture, murder, and exile of tens of thousands of his own citizens. If he were still alive today, I wonder whether then-U.S. president Richard Nixon would agree that Allende was the greater evil.
Nixon might justify his decision by citing his intense focus on eliminating communism and socialism, which were seen as controlling, repressive forms of government. Unfortunately, regardless of Nixon’s motives, the end result of U.S. military involvement in Latin America was horrific.
Under Operation Condor, the C.I.A. and U.S. military taught their counterparts in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay how to counteract political dissenters. Electric shocks, sensory deprivation, and the use of psychological drugs were among the methods of torture implemented by the C.I.A.
During the dictatorship in Argentina, the death and “disappearance” toll surpassed 30,000 and it was common to see strange packages washed up on the banks of the Rio de la Plata. These packages contained human bodies that had been dropped into the sea from airplanes. Military officials would drug prisoners, many of whom were already so weak from torture they had to be hoisted aboard their own “death flights.”
Of course, for many reasons, today’s situation in Syria is different from Latin American military dictatorships of the '70s and '80s. We haven't teamed up with the Syrian military. Obama has made it clear he doesn’t want to put “American boots on the ground in Syria,” so at least there’s less risk of traditional warfare.
Additionally, chemical weapons are the enemy here, not an individual dictator. As we’ve seen in the past, it can be very dangerous to accuse one individual as the source of evil in his country. Likewise, it can be extremely dangerous to exalt one leader over another, as Ronald Reagan did during the Argentine military regime headed by Jorge Rafael Videla. Reagan voiced his support for Videla, who he viewed as superior to Argentina’s previous leader. Reagan also discouraged discussion of the human rights crimes occurring in Argentina, claiming that to focus on such matters was to alienate “a country important to our future security.”
Perhaps Reagan truly thought he was protecting Argentina, stepping up as hero by helping an unstable country get back on its feet. It doesn’t really matter what he thought: the point is, he was wrong, and wrong for involving himself in the situation in this way. Would refraining from taking any stance at all have had any impact on the number of Argentines who were murdered? We'll never know for sure, but we do know that Reagan's particular stance didn't help anyone.
“Security” can be a really dangerous word. Videla himself used it in support of death squads in 1975. “As many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure,” he said.
Just let that one sink in for a minute.
In last week's address, Obama used the word to indicate just how important the Syrian tragedy is to the U.S.: “Our national security is at stake in Syria."
A good chunk of his address was focused on security, in fact, not just nationally, but internationally. “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” Obama asked us last week.
The thing is, we already live in a world where the United States looks away from injustice. It happens quite frequently, in fact.
Supporters of U.S. intervention in Syria might consider the harmful consequences of military force we’ve witnessed in the past. I’m not saying I know that Obama’s heart isn’t in the right place, here — but based on our track history, I cannot in good conscience assume that it is.
In the past, we've rolled up our sleeves and molded our political visions onto countries around the world. Why not try something different this time? Can we please say goodbye to Officer America?
We can’t wipe our slate clean, but we can start anew from where we are. It’s time to adjust our expectations of what the U.S. military can and should do when war strikes in other countries. Here’s a hint: less.