TCS Daily


What Is Unusual?

By Arnold Kling - March 17, 2003 12:00 AM

I am an economist, which does not make me a political scientist or a military historian. Nonetheless, some of the claims that are being made about the possible war with Iraq did not coincide with my memory of history. In particular, the claim that it is rare for the United States to go to war unless we are attacked did not square with my recall. So I decided to compile a list of conflicts that we have engaged in since World War II. I wanted to see what sort of generalizations are actually supported by the facts.

My criteria for counting something as a conflict is that we sent forces with a clear intention of fighting, for more than just a "retaliatory strike." I have not found a web site that represents "the definitive list" according to those criteria, but as best as I can determine, here they are:

Korea, 1950-53
Viet Nam, 1960 - 1975
Cuba, 1961
Dominican Republic, 1965
Grenada, 1983
Panama, 1989
Iraq, 1991
Somalia, 1994
Serbia, 1999
Afghanistan, 2001


The United States was not attacked by any of these countries. In at least five of the ten cases - I count Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, and Somalia - we attempted to intervene in the domestic affairs of the country without any pretext of that country's having launched a war outside its borders.

No Substitute for Victory

An interesting thing happens when you sort the conflicts by whether or not we achieved victory, as measured by regime change. Here is the list of victories and defeats, using that metric.

Regime Changed Regime Unchanged
Dominican Republic North Korea
Grenada Viet Nam
Panama Cuba
Serbia Iraq
Afghanistan Somalia

Do you notice anything? I am struck that in every case in which the United States effected regime change, the conditions improved (and I'm not even counting the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War II or the fall of Communism at the end of the Cold War). The countries were clearly better off in terms of human rights, representative government, and economic prosperity than they were prior to our intervention.

In contrast, where we failed to achieve regime change the result has been a humanitarian disaster. Dire poverty, thuggish regimes, and not infrequently genocide.

(The importance of regime change leads me to go back and find cases where the United States was implicated in regime change, even though we did not send combat forces. These would include Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, and Nicaragua in 1990. The benefits of "regime change in absentia" are not as clear-cut, but our preferred government seems to have proven better than the alternatives.)

The conclusion is inescapable. Douglas MacArthur was right. There is no substitute for victory. Based on our track record, regime change instigated by the United States is one of the greatest success stories of the past half-century.

Indeed the data suggest to me that if the goal of our foreign policy is to maximize world well-being, we should launch a global campaign of regime change brought about by military force. Nothing we could do in terms of trade policy, bilateral aid, or multilateral assistance has anywhere near the potency of regime change.

The foregoing notwithstanding, I am afraid that I must stop short of advocating sending our military on a world regime-change tour. I do not doubt the power of the evidence that this would be a blessing to humanity. However, I am not ready to sign on to the notion that our goal should be to maximize world well-being. Instead, I lean toward looking after our own national interests. Other countries can just stew in it, for all I care. Unless they aid and abet terrorists, my inclination is to leave them alone.

What Is Unusual

There is something unusual about the current Iraq situation. However, it has nothing to do with whether we were attacked first. It has to do with whether we asked permission first. The only historical case where we obtained international sanction was Korea, where we fought under the banner of the UN.

My guess is that if international sanction had been a precondition, then none of the interventions would have taken place. In fact, had the Soviet Union not been boycotting the UN at the time that North Korea launched its attack on the South, we would have had to fight that conflict without a UN cover, and there would be no historical examples of internationally-sanctioned war.

Based on this history, I do not see how anyone can predict that the lack of international support will affect the outcome of a war with Iraq. We do not have enough examples of wars where we enjoyed international support to be able to say what difference it makes. We certainly cannot say that international support is a substitute for victory.

World-Historical Gamble?

Recently, Lee Harris argued that by undertaking a pre-emptive war on Iraq we are taking a World-Historical Gamble. I am afraid that I have to disagree. It was only by taking the issue to the United Nations that we were taking a historical gamble. A reading of Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm would convince anyone that it is a gamble with poor odds. Churchill's history of the policy and diplomacy of the 1930's clearly demonstrates how difficult it is to mobilize "the international community" for dealing with threats to security.

In placing responsibility for the failure to confront Hitler, Churchill does not hide behind France or the League of Nations. Instead, he says that his book is about "How the English-speaking peoples through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature allowed the wicked to rearm." To allow the wicked to re-arm - that is what I would call a world-historical gamble.
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