The Non-Intervention Alternative

William Pfaff, the long time international relations scribe and current columnist for the International Herald Tribune, has an essay in the most recent number of The New York Review that is sure to stimulate a great deal of chatter (in those tiny – primarily insignificant – precincts where such chatter can be stimulated. Like small-d).

Pfaff tells a story about American foreign policy since the end of World War II and argues for the path not taken. With an aged George Kennan as his guru, Pfaff argues that the notion that America has a mission to spread democracy is a dangerous fallacy that has set the country on a well-worn imperial path to self-destruction. Pfaff, quoting Kennan:

“To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it.” Many nondemocratic systems are inherently unstable. “But so what?” he asked. “We are not their keepers. We never will be.” (He did not say that we might one day try to be.) He suggested that nondemocratic societies should be left “to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse.”

There are prudent consideration’s in the Pfaff essay that are well worth considering. And we can expect to see more of this sort of argument – recently popularized by David Rieff and similar to one offered at great length in a forthcoming book by the Tufts University political scientist Tony Smith – as Iraq continues to undermine American confidence in American leadership (more on the Smith book in the week’s ahead).

But Pfaff veers wildly off the mark when he explains what might have been had the US followed his non-interventionist policy (which he first articulated in Harper’s in 1961):

Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solution by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as has proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia, which precipitated the Khmer Rouge genocide. The tribal peoples of Laos would probably have been spared their ordeal.


The United States would not have suffered its catastrophic implication in what was essentially a domestic crisis in Iran in 1979, which still poisons Near and Middle Eastern affairs, since there would never have been the huge and provocative American investment in the Shah’s regime as American “gendarme” in the region, compromising the Shah and contributing to the fundamentalist backlash against his secularizing modernization.

I am skeptical of all such counter-factual arguments (to Pfaff’s credit, he does admit that such an exercise in “what-ifs” and “mights” is “otiose”) because they presuppose that had we not done “X” then “Y” would have been different. Perhaps. For instance, had we not orchestrated the overthrow of Mossadegh regime in Iran in the early 1950s, it is possible that Iranian history and culture would have been sent in an entirely distinct direction. Quite possible, in fact. But who is to say that this alternative course would not have been even more damaging to US interests? Counter-factual history is fun and interesting, but it often lacks a keen recognition that there is also a cost to inaction. That the intervention not undertaken can be as damaging than the ones we do (even when, short term, they seem like grievous errors).

In short, the logic of Pfaff’s argument is at best flawed and certainly unpersuasive.

ps. It is worth noting, as I believe this blog has many times, that the Pfaff essay appears in the pages of what is considered a left-liberal publication, while the David Rieff essay linked to above appears in the lefty Nation. Is it springtime for realism on the left?

Explore posts in the same categories: Intervention

3 Comments on “The Non-Intervention Alternative”

  1. HW Says:

    Given the broad definition of “intervention” that Pfaff seems to imply one has to assume that if his preferred policy had been followed in the 1960’s NATO would have collapsed and Western Europe, along with Turkey, would have come under the thrall of the Soviet Union. South Korea too would have fallen under Communist control, not to mention Taiwan, Japan and perhaps the rest of Asia. So much for trade and raw materials, never mind democracy. Then of course there’s the Middle East – Israel destroyed and the world’s largest supply of oil in the hands of Saddam Hussein or some other psycopath. What a wonderful world.

  2. ERG Says:

    As usual, HW, you have managed to convey the point I was dancing around with admirable clarity.

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