Should There Be a Term Limit on Interventions?

by John J. Tierney, Jr.  |  January 12, 2019  |  ARTICLES

President Trump's abrupt decision to remove American forces from Syria produced a storm of critique from all quarters, left, right, and center. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned almost immediately, while op-ed opinion from the "mainstream" media was almost universally opposed.

That last point can be discounted as political, but, more disturbingly, Trump's erstwhile political allies were equally opposed. Senator Lindsay Graham proclaimed that Trump's decision "has rattled the world," while Senator Marco Rubio predicted a dire future for U.S. foreign policy: "... this is a major mistake. And I hope they reverse it. Because if not, it will haunt this administration." Mattis agreed, stating that the move might disrupt the entire alliance system: "We cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances or showing respect to those allies."

Mattis had a point, as Trump's idiosyncratic style is his own worst enemy.

But Trump still backed off a bit, telling reporters that, "I never said we're doing it that quickly."

Involved are a grand total of 2,200 soldiers. During the Vietnam War, the U.S., in three consecutive administrations, sent over two million troops and withdrew them all by 1975. A few years later, this country became heralded as the world's "sole remaining superpower."

Do the math.

What is the expiration date for America in someone else's country? (Is there a warning label?) There are 193 countries in the world, so how important is this one (Syria)?

These questions are deliberately rhetorical, only meant to open the imagination (mind). Maybe history can help.

Occupying other countries and then leaving is, as they say, "old hat." Which means that there is nothing new under the sun.

Every occupation in all history has ended, no exception. The only question is when. So, we are arguing about tactics and circumstances. Nobody wants to stay in Syria indefinitely, (I can't imagine) but when can we leave?

There is a profound difference between an intervention and an occupation. The first is almost always very popular or unnoticed. The other can tear societies apart (remember Vietnam?).

The less they are remembered, the better they were. In July 1958, President Eisenhower sent Marines into Lebanon to restore order after a pro-Islamic coup. Order restored, the Marines were gone by September. History has all but forgotten that episode, mainly because it worked. On October 25, 1983, President Reagan sent U.S. troops (Seals, Rangers, Marines) into Granada to restore order and protect American students. Four days later, they all left, and today, Granada celebrates October 25th as "Thanksgiving Day."

Three months in Lebanon, four days in Granada, and now seventeen years in Afghanistan and fifteen in Iraq. When President George W. Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, he declared "mission accomplished," and that the conflicts in the region "have ended." Unbeknownst to anybody, the real conflicts had just begun. This is hardly unique.

The U.S. has spent all of the current century trying to restore order in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. That's a considerable time period for one central mission. Compare this to American military history. Time in Afghanistan, for example, equals total combat time combined in major American wars to 1945: the Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War's I and II.

Is something out of sync today? Trump signals removal of a couple thousand soldiers from Syria (after four years), and all hell breaks loose. This, too, is not unique.

Between 1898 and 1926, American troops intervened in Caribbean and Central American countries on twenty-five occasions, plus the Philippines. Some were long, nearly fifty years in The Philippines (a territory until 1946), nineteen years in Haiti, eight in the Dominican Republic, and "in perpetuity" in Panama (ended in 1978).

In Nicaragua, Marines intervened in 1926 (for the twelfth time since 1850), again, to restore order in a civil war. They stayed for seven years, without restoring order or even catching the guerrilla enemy, called "Sandinistas" after leader Augusto Sandino (today a latter-day Sandinista, Daniel Ortega, is president and there is another civil conflict).

After several years of frustrating occupation, President Hoover decided to evacuate, regardless of consequence. Criticisms from Congress and from overseas made the occupation generally unpopular. In the Senate, several resolutions called for an immediate withdrawal. At times, as now, debate grew emotional. Senator Clarence Dill (D-WA), for example, called the occupation, "one of the blackest and foulest crimes that has been committed against men." The "mainstream media," again, like now, joined the attack. The Scripps-Howard chain asked, "What is all this fighting about? Why are these young men in Marine uniforms being killed?" Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York demanded that foreign occupations should end "for all time."

By the fourth year, even the Department of State had turned against the occupation. The Assistant Secretary for Latin America wrote Secretary Henry L. Stimson (who ordered in the Marines originally) that "Nicaragua should assume the obligation of policing its territory and that the United States should be relieved of this burden at the earliest possible moment." The Marine Corps Commandant told the State Department that to continue the occupation "would require many times the total available force of Marines and ... would produce no definite military results."

Stimson himself privately closed the door: "It is now over three years since I succeeded in bringing to a conclusion the war which was going on in Nicaragua. ... Yet apparently we are as far from pacifying those provinces as we were three years ago. In other words, there has already been consumed a longer period of time than we required to subdue the Philippine Insurrection in 1899 ... a longer time than was required for the British forces to quell the guerrilla fighting in all South Africa. Such a situation would seem to indicate that we are not on the right track."

Sound familiar?