Rosenfield: Small decisions, big repercussions

Scott Rosenfield and Scott Rosenfield

The best and the brightest advised the president to send additional advisors to Southeast Asia in 1961. The president concurred, and he dispatched men to Vietnam. Within seven years, 400 American Green Beret “Special Advisors” became 537,000 service members. And before the conflict ended, 58,175 Americans lost their lives.

It’s easy to forget that President Kennedy sent the first American troops to Vietnam, but the lessons of the conflict are seared into the current American consciousness. Small commitments can rapidly become unsustainable and the safest of military endeavors can end in tremendous failure.w

Those lessons are now well known, but they were alien to Kennedy and his team of advisors. In his review of the muddled foreign policy that led America to intervene in Vietnam, David Halbersten places blame on the academics and intellectuals in Kennedy’s administration. They were the best and brightest, but they erred with tremendous ramifications. They lost a war and forever changed the role of America in world politics.

This week, another academic made a small, safe commitment to send 100 American troops abroad to Africa. Guided by the internationally accepted “responsibility to protect” doctrine, President Obama has authorized an armed force to aid in the destruction of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a regional force that has raped, killed, maimed and kidnapped with impunity in at least four countries.

Only 98 years ago, Woodrow Wilson preached the virtue of moral policy and sent waves of American forces overseas. Like Obama, he was an academic (the president of Princeton) and represented the vanguard of intellectualism and morality, as opposed to his predecessors who touted the virtue of the dollar and big stick diplomacy. He was the original intellectual president.

However, his fervent belief in the Monroe Doctrine and moral policy led to a series of foreign misadventures in Central America, including intervention and military presence in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Nicaragua between 1912 and 1917.

History has washed Wilson’s intervention from the American mind, but the defeat of the U.S. Marines remains a point of great national pride in Nicaragua. More importantly, it ushered in Nicaraguan governments prone to systematically oppressing, killing and undermining their own citizens. The powers that emerged in the wake of American intervention would go on to rule Nicaragua tyrannically until 1990.

Starting with the forced ousting of President Jose Santos Zelaya in 1909 due to U.S. intervention, Nicaragua experienced a rapid economic and humanitarian decline, though conditions within Nicaragua cannot be blamed entirely on American foreign policy. Likewise, modern-day conditions in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba are not entirely the result of Wilson’s actions. However, his military commitments strongly shaped Central America in unintended and often deleterious ways.

In contrast to the flimsy support Wilson used to wage war, intervening in Africa now appears to be a defensible action, and certainly a moral one. Likely, it might even succeed. A similarly small British force subdued a rebel uprising in Sierra Leone that had engaged in Kony-style butchery in 2000.

If a small American force can save lives at minimal cost it should be utilized, but with great caution. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to decipher if intervention is for the good and what the long-term implications of any actions are. Therefore, Congress must accept greater oversight of American intervention, and the American public must press for a reduced level of international intervention. The risks of not doing so are simply too high, for Americans and foreigners alike.

Scott Rosenfield is a Medill junior.

He can be reached at [email protected]