A few weeks ago, when the United States was on the verge of sending troops to Zaire to help prevent people from starving, we started hearing the usual complaints. Not our business. Not a drop of American blood. Not the right use for American forces.
There's something unseemly about these arguments.
It has often been noted that some of the same people who were dovish during the old cold-war days - when the US was struggling for its survival - are the first to want to send in the Marines for humanitarian reasons, when our vital national interests are not clearly at stake. But what troubles me is the other side of that picture, the way some of the old hawks are eager to prevent American troops from taking even the slightest risk when "all" that is to be gained is the preservation of innumerable human lives and of some last vestiges of civilized values.
The arguments advanced for this isolationist position seem flawed. If you listened to the case against using US troops in a place like Zaire, you'd never know Americans were going to be a small part of a larger international effort. The opponents ask, "Why should American boys take risks where American interests are not at stake?" They never ask, "Why should we join with the rest of the civilized world in saving many lives with limited risk to ourselves?" The mission in Zaire was to be led by the Canadians, but to listen to the critics on the television commentary circuit you'd think it was just us Yanks being dragged into something that was none of our affair.
These critics don't want the US to be 911 to the world, but they never say who should be 911 to people being starved and terrorized in Africa, or raped and bombarded in Bosnia. I'd feel better about their concerns if the same people who say American troops should only be used to protect American interests were also pressing to have an international force established that could fill this need.
Make no mistake: In these situations, if nothing is done by outsiders with no vital interests at stake, the result will be human catastrophe. It makes no sense to talk about leaving a problem to "the Haitian people" to resolve, when a group of thugs has seized power and has the population terrorized. The exodus of refugees back to Rwanda as soon as the genocidal clique holding them captive had been run off shows that it was precisely the wider world's unwillingness to provide but the tiniest show of force over the past two years that allowed that crisis to develop. And it was only when NATO at last ran a few bombing missions over Bosnia two summers ago that the bloodshed there came to an end.
With just a little effort in these situations we can bring a kind of peace and justice to places where the most brutal kind of might otherwise substitutes for right. But the opponents say no, it's not our affair. Many of these are the same people who insist on beefing up the Pentagon's budget, even beyond what the Joint Chiefs want. Yet what do they want us to do with this immense force when there is no one else remotely in our league? We're spending almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. Are we being prepared for a worst-case scenario of America versus the world? We're the only big kid on the block, and history has brought us to a place where the main global business at hand is to deal with these small, ugly world conflicts.
For the first time in history, "little" nightmares such as these - where the fate of "only" a few million people at a time hangs in the balance - can be ended by a coherent world, one with eyes to see into the world's dark and distant crevices, and the forums in which to decide together that humankind stands for more than brutal force and selfish indifference.
Even in Somalia
Even in Somalia, more than a dozen Americans died, but hundreds of thousands of people who would have died survived because of us. Is it not part of our national interest to know and to show that this is what America is - not just a power bent on its own gain but a nation consecrated to doing God's work?
A comparison with the welfare debate comes to mind. I used to think that conservatives who resented the welfare system were simply selfish - that they'd rather have the money in their own comparatively well-lined pockets than to have to give up some so that the poorest among us had food and shelter.
But I've come since to learn that in many cases I was wrong. Some of these conservatives were right that the welfare system perpetuated many of the same problems it was supposed to solve. They were right that the huge paternalistic bureaucracies of government were less effective in changing lives than the private giving that some churches and community groups practice. And I saw that many who didn't want their taxes going into a welfare state were generous in funding these other ways of being a good Samaritan.
But in places such as Zaire and Bosnia there is no private way of changing lives. In such situations there is no "culture of dependency" that degrades people who might otherwise rely upon themselves. It is a choice between putting ourselves out for our wounded neighbor by the side of the road or just letting him bleed to death. It is a choice between using the tool of official armed forces, or letting the most monstrous of our kind define the face of our times. To refuse to extend ourselves in situations like that seems to me just plain selfishness of the kind that all our values, all our spiritual traditions, tell us not to indulge in. We're better than that, aren't we?
*Andrew Bard Schmookler lives in Virginia and is the author of "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution."