The question of when to intervene in foreign conflicts is one of the most difficult and consequential that American leaders face. It is tempting to think that, with our overwhelming military strength, we can use force to settle many disputes. But intervening is rarely as easy as it looks.
I am skeptical about elaborate foreign policy strategies that invite time-consuming, expensive, troop-heavy commitments. I am wary about our ability and willingness to build infrastructure -- roads, hospitals, schools and institutions required for a well-functioning government -- in countries that lack these assets.
Interventionists tend to argue we have the military might and resources to succeed. But all in all, it's a bridge too far. It's not that we can't do it; we can. But more often than not, we lack the political will to sustain the effort over the years to get the job done.
The social, political and economic elements of what is often called nation-building are devilishly complicated and tremendously expensive. Congress may be willing to appropriate the necessary money for a few years, but invariably it will lose interest. Other crises capture our attention; and when we leave the areas in which we have intervened, conditions have a tendency to revert to where they were. As others have observed, a country that is poor, illiterate and undeveloped when we go in will continue to be poor, illiterate and undeveloped after we leave.
Our military, the best in the world, can win wars and stabilize conflicts. But that doesn't mean it can build new cultures and generate the necessary institutions -- or create the political landscape and will necessary for democracy and the rule of law. We are not very good at what President Barack Obama recently referred to as "the long slog" of helping societies provide a secure environment and better life for their people.
This is not an argument against all intervention; we should help our friends and allies resolve conflicts, choosing our interventions carefully, with full consideration of the risks and consequences. We can provide financial and military aid, boost local economies through trade and expert developmental assistance, and offer training.
But I am especially wary of a large-scale commitment of American forces. When we do intervene, we need to define our objectives with precision. For example, it is one thing to say we're going to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for ISIS and quite another to say we're going to turn Afghanistan into a flourishing democracy. We can achieve the one but not the other.
We also have to be deliberate about choosing our allies. We cannot impose solutions from on high. Without reliable partners, we cannot succeed no matter how much blood, sweat and tears we put into the effort. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared from the start to be a flawed leader, and he turned out to be incapable of uniting the country or managing an effective government, even with our help.
Those who favor intervention seem to believe there is no wrong we cannot right, no war we cannot win, no democracy we cannot build. They often argue that American credibility is at stake. I don't think it always is. Instead, we gain respect when we exercise prudence and put limits on our willingness to intervene.
We recovered our credibility and leadership role after Vietnam and are doing so after Iraq.
I accept the necessity of using military force on occasion. The world is dangerous, and there are genuine threats to our national security, to our well-being, all around us. The option of intervening with hard power to promote and protect our security and our interests must always be on the table.
But successful intervention has relied on strong partners and a commitment sustained over years. Think of South Korea, one of the world's great economic and political success stories but a country where we fought a war and have maintained a military presence for six decades.
What prompts my wariness about intervention is the cost in money and lives, the uncertainty about consequences, the sheer number of threats we face and the egregious experiences we have had in a variety of cases, such as Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
With our powerful military, it's entirely too easy for decision-makers to reach for the gun too quickly, not as a last resort, and without fully anticipating the risks -- and before we have amassed the political will to sustain an intervention and deal with the consequences.
Military intervention with limited objectives, while difficult, may sometimes be appropriate. But changing a nation's history and culture and establishing the institutions of representative government -- which, after all, took hundreds of years in this country -- is a formidable challenge. America's leaders should undertake such an effort only when our objectives are clear, our vital interests are clearly at stake, and they have confidence that the political will and resources will be available for "the long slog."