Perhaps a flinty pioneer spirit that extols rugged individualism explains Americans’ discomfort with government. Or maybe it’s a cultural hand-me-down from the country’s European settlers who fled tyranny in the Old World. Regardless, despite our professed reverence for democracy, we also distrust the very institutions established as democratic cornerstones.
Thomas Jefferson summarized one traditional American view of government, that it should be severely limited. “A wise and frugal government,” Jefferson said during his first inaugural address, “which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
Of course, whether Americans are really Jeffersonians is debatable, as even champions of limited government tend to embrace the welfare state, if occasionally unwittingly. A town hall attendee’s recent admonishment to his congressman to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” illustrated this best.
Still, Americans’ tolerance for glaring social inequities that potentially could be addressed legislatively by our elected representatives underscores our ambivalence towards collective action. Better to endure the cruel vagaries of the marketplace than risk the unintended consequences of government activism. In this respect we’re truly exceptional among developed nations.
Curiously, though, our skepticism about government intervention stops at the water’s edge. When it comes to remaking the world in our own image, we gladly roll the dice with little concern about unpredictable outcomes. We do this often.
From our earliest days as a nation, we have had few qualms about meddling in others’ affairs. After clearing the continent of its native population, our nation’s acquisitive forbearers turned their attention north and south. We took chunks of Mexico and tried to nab Canada. Less than fifty years after the country’s birth, we claimed dominion over the entire Western Hemisphere when President Monroe warned others in 1823 not to interfere in our sphere of influence.
So pronounced was our tendency to poke our noses under our neighbors’ tents that Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz is said to have lamented, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!” Many other Latin American leaders could have identified wholeheartedly. And in due course so could others, not just those in our backyard.
The Philippines, Iran, South Vietnam, and, most recently, Libya, among other countries, have all been subject to our heavy hand. The list is lengthy, and does include instances of American assertiveness abroad that are unquestionably justified. We have paid a great price in blood and treasure to stop Fascism, to arrest ethnic cleansing, and to help nations far and wide suffering from natural disasters and famine. We remain the world’s “indispensable” power whose leadership is often required to ensure global peace and security.
Indeed, on occasion, it’s precisely our failure to intervene, not our tendency to do so, that has proven most disastrous. This was the case Rwanda in the mid-1990s, where a modest force could have stopped genocide that killed hundreds of thousands. But more often than not our foreign interventions, overt and covert, are undertaken too readily without sufficient consideration of the downside risks.
The term typically describing the unintended negative consequences of foreign interventions is “blowback.” It is usually associated with our policy of arming the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, which came back to haunt us when international jihadis drawn to the conflict turned on us on 9/11. Blowback is hardly rare, however.
Consider one of America’s greatest global irritants, Iran. Tehran’s staunch anti-Americanism has a lot do with our 1953 disposition of their democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeqh. Such devious pot stirring, as is often the case, initially worked in our favor with the installation of a complicit puppet, the Shah. Ultimately, though, things went terribly wrong, and we’re still paying the price.
On Iran’s western border is Iraq, an exemplar of the perils of so-called preventative war, and on its eastern boundary is Afghanistan, a case study for how even the best-intentioned foreign interventions to depose the most repugnant of regimes (the Taliban) can go awry. Three neighbors, three interventions, one common dominator: unintended outcomes.
“[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” John Quincy Adams once famously said. Actually, we do, and we often end up with monstrous results. There’s a better way. Fortunately, we only have to look at our own Jeffersonian tradition at home for inspiration. Humility, we recognize domestically, is no shame. On the contrary. We’d be wise to apply such knowledge beyond our shores.