In Defense of Interventionism: Why We Shouldn’t Fear It

By Siddharth R Bagri, Opinion Writer

Interventionism has justifiably come under a tremendous strain since the end of the Iraq War, with politicians on both the left and right tripping over themselves to either disavow their role in it or, if they opposed it from the start, champion their prescience.

In the 2016 election, the conversation surrounding the ill-fated invasion has devolved into a blame game of who was for what and when, and whether or not their choice is an indicator of their competence.

A large reason why President Obama won the 2008 election was because he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning.

Many opponents of the war and critics of US foreign policy have tried to use examples like Iraq to discredit the notion of interventionism entirely, but I believe that they have drawn the wrong conclusion.

While interventionism itself is not a failed policy, I do think that it needs to be revisited.

According to PBS, interventionism became a cornerstone of US foreign policy under President Eisenhower, with his goal of containing the Soviet Union.

This began America’s dark legacy of overthrowing democracies and installing dictatorships in the name of stability and containment: the most infamous of which occurred in Guatemala and Iran.

As reported by the New York Times, the installation of King Reza Pahlavi reversed Iran’s democratic progress and the coup that brought Colonel Castillo Armas to power in Guatemala, was followed by bloody conflicts that the country is still recovering from to this day.

The cold realist interpretation of interventionism ended with the Cold War. Humanitarian needs became the justification for the belated military interventions of the 1990’s, the most famous of which happened in 1995 when NATO forces ended the Bosnian war, perpetrated by Serbia’s genocidal leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The notion of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which allows intervention to prevent genocide and other war crimes, was a direct result of the intervention’s success.

A combination of a perceived national interest surrounding Iraq’s nuclear capabilities and the ideal of promoting freedom would animate the 2003 invasion.   

The catastrophic failure of the occupation is a serious contender for the worst mistake in American history and it has not only redefined America’s role in the world, but also how we see ourselves.

To this day, we still have not recovered from it. However, despite what conventional wisdom would have us believe, the occupation was not doomed from the start.

To put it simply, there were two key policy failures that permanently crippled the effort. The first was our failure to fill the power vacuum left by Saddam Hussein’s government.

This was compounded by the fact that very few Americans spoke Arabic or had interpreters.

The security situation deteriorated so quickly that just months after the fall of Baghdad it became too dangerous for many people to leave the Green Zone (America’s base of operations).

The second was the De-Ba’athification program which destroyed the Iraqi government’s capability to function.

According to Al-Jazeera, membership of the Ba’ath party (Saddam’s party) was required for state employment.

America wanted to rid Iraq of their influence permanently, but instead of just getting rid of the party leaders or those specifically guilty of crimes, America blacklisted every member indiscriminately.

Anyone who knew anything about running a government was deemed ineligible to participate.

All of Iraq’s soldiers were fired as well, and they were allowed to keep their guns, a policy that the International Business Times suggests contributed to the rise of ISIS and still hampers Iraq’s government today.

Today interventionism is intertwined with nation-building, and this is the reason why many people are so nervous about it. Nation-building hinges on providing security and on an intimate knowledge of the country in question, and even then it is not guaranteed to be a success.

Although it failed in Iraq, nation-building is not impossible and it has succeeded before.

Germany and Japan were resounding successes and today they are among our strongest allies. If, however, we decide to forgo interventionism, there will be moral implications.

We risk repeating the mistakes of the 1990’s: a time when genocides ravaged Rwanda and Bosnia while the world stood by and watched.

It is not easy, but it is possible to create allies through intervention. However, we must pick our battles carefully; Iraq’s invasion was sold on the lie of weapons of mass destruction.

Intervention is also necessary to uphold international law.

As the Syrian conflict has demonstrated, human rights and rules against chemical weapons have little meaning if they are not enforced.

Intervention understandably has a bad reputation, but we must not let certain policy failures discredit the idea. Otherwise, the world will be a much darker place for us all.


A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, October 25th print edition.


Contact Siddharth at

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