The Vital Interests Test

I am aware that straddling the fence on an issue can make us seem indecisive, dithering, wavering, wishy-washy and lukewarm, afraid to take a stand, a mugwump. All those good things.

Not the best way to get people to read what you have to say. Still, I am going to have to do it on the topic that follows. It is one that befuddles me.

What topic am I talking about? The question of when it is appropriate for the United States to intervene militarily around the world. I used to think I knew. Now I am not so sure. William Rusher explored the issue in a recent column on the Bush Doctrine, which Rusher describes as a conviction that American has a “mission to spread democracy all over the world,” thereby going “beyond the ambitious goal of Woodrow Wilson, which was (you will recall) to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’”

Rusher has been one of my favorite political commentators for over 40 years now, ever since his days at National Review. He thinks clearly and writes succinctly. It is hard to take issue with him this time. He insists that Bush’s understanding of the United States’ role in the world arena is markedly different from that which prevailed up until now on the conservative and Republican side of the fence: Heretofore “the traditional test of when American forces’ lives may be risked abroad is ‘when a vital American interest is at stake.’ What Bush has done, and frankly said he has done, is define the worldwide furtherance of democracy as a ‘vital interest’ of the United States.”

Rusher reminds us that conservatives and Republicans criticized Bill Clinton for deploying our forces to “Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, where not even the sharpest eyes could discern a vital American interest.” “But,” says Rusher, “George W. Bush has made Clinton look like a piker. The danger that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction made pre-emption of his efforts a genuinely vital interest of the United States.” When no WMDs were found “Bush quickly shifted to justifying the war on the basis that democratizing Iraq was the only way to make it, and thereafter the rest of the Middle East, peaceful.”

Rusher prods us to ponder the implications of Bush’s policy by pointing to the mass slaughter of Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in the late 1990s. He reminds us that the Hutus “came alarmingly close to succeeding” in a “genocidal slaughter” of the Tutsis. Bill Clinton has more than once confessed in public that he wishes he had sent in our military to stop the massacre of the Tutsis. The question is whether Republicans and conservatives now agree with Clinton.

If not, why not? Would not the Bush Doctrine require that we take action if such a situation were to arise again, in Africa or anywhere else in the world? Rusher: [S]hould we have sent in the 101st Airborne Infantry, and sacrificed however many American lives it took, to force the two sides to lay down their arms?” Rusher says no: “[F]or the life of me, and despite the indisputable horrors that took place, I cannot see that there was a vital American interest in stopping them. What is the vital interest of the United States in whether Rwanda is ruled by the Tutsis or the Hutus?” The “possibly large loss of American lives” would not be “worth it,” he argues.

Rusher’s view was once the consensus view on the American Right: We cannot fight every evil on the planet. We are not the policemen of the world. We can’t ask our armed forces to give their lives whenever we see an injustice that troubles our consciences. They are not toy soldiers in some war game, or a mercenary force like the French Foreign Legion. Our military’s mission is to defend the United States, not to make us feel better by righting wrongs brought to our attention on the nightly news.

It is my guess that the above would still be the consensus on the American Right. Conservatives who back the war in Iraq make the case that there were vital geopolitical reasons for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, whether or not it turns out that he possessed WMDs. I doubt there would be much support for sending our troops into Africa whenever tribal warfare breaks out, certainly not if the casualties mounted. Recall the reaction to the killing of the 18 Army Rangers in Somalia in 1993 by the forces of the warlord Muhamed Aidid.

But here’s my problem with taking Rusher’s stance: Can we really hold to the position that the United States should never intervene militarily unless there is an “imminent threat to our vital national interests”? Do we mean that? If we do, what about World War II, the war we are told was the “last good war”?

We know the United States did not enter that conflict until Germany declared war on us after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. But that is irrelevant for the discussion at hand. The question is whether it would have been the right thing for the United States to stand by and let Hitler dominate Europe, even if the Japanese had not attacked us. Enlightened modern opinion these days is the exact opposite. We are told that the Roosevelt administration was morally deficient for not getting involved earlier to “stop the genocide.” We are told that it is America’s shame that we “looked the other way.”

So how does the logic work? Why was it a moral imperative to stop the Nazis, but not a moral imperative to stop the Hutus from killing Tutsis? If it was a moral imperative to stop Hitler from killing Jews, homosexuals and gypsies, why was it not a moral imperative to stop Saddam Hussein from killing Kurds and Shiites and torturing political dissidents? You can’t answer these questions with numbers.

Hitler killed millions, while the Hutus and Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands. But the price we were forced to pay to stop Hitler was many, many times greater than what we are paying in Iraq, or would have had to pay in Rwanda to save the Tutsis. We lost nearly 500,000 American lives in World War II. If you are going to argue that it was “worth” 500,000 American lives to stop the Nazis, you would have to accept that it would have been worth, say, 1000 lives to stop the Hutus from massacring the Tutsis and, say, 3000 lives to stop Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against his people. That is the argument of “proportionality” you hear from experts, both lay and religious, on the concept of a just war.

Please do not read me wrong. William Rusher believes it was the right thing for the United States to use military force to stop Hitler. So do I. What I am asking just now is how we can make that argument if we limit ourselves to Rusher’s “vital interests” test? One could argue that somewhere down the line a Europe dominated by Hitler and the Nazis would have become an “imminent threat” to the United States. There are many scenarios for that eventuality.

But one can also come up with scenarios for what Saddam Hussein might have done if he had been allowed to stay in power. Why are the projections of the threats involving the Third Reich more compelling than those centering on Saddam Hussein? Indeed, if you are speaking strictly of vital national interests, it is easier to make the case that a resurgent Iraq taking control of the Middle East’s oil supply would threaten us more than anything Hitler could have done in the 1940s through his domination of Europe and North Africa.

I am not being coy. I wish I had an answer to these questions. I don’t. If someone comes up with a good one, I’ll send it on.

James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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