Matt Yglesias, the Center for American Progress blogger we last saw offering a damning (albeit unintentional) indictment of the unshakable liberal faith in electing Democrats to improve America’s “quality of governance”, has uncovered a problem. And it’s a big one.
You see, if one holds the U.S. government to the same standards it applies to other, less powerful countries, and if in the grips of some far-left ideology you go so far as to say wars should only be fought as an absolute last resort – and only in self-defense – then one soon discovers there are very few instances where American military action has been justified. One might even conclude that many of the wars fought by the U.S. have been unjust given that, as Yglesias notes, “For the United States, which is conveniently located on the North American continent adjacent to two friendly and relatively weak countries, it’s going to be very hard for anything to meet a strict necessity test.”
As a serious member of the Washington punditocracy, this fact concerns Yglesias — not because it eviscerates the moral case for the American empire and an obscenely bloated military budget, but rather because applying such a strict criteria to U.S. actions would preclude the righteous humanitarian interventions left-leaning hawks like himself imagine their government engaging in. And like any good establishment liberal, Ygelsias cites disgraced war criminal Harry “Hiroshima” Truman to boost his case, “happily” granting the war in Korea “as a great example of a ‘good war’” that may never have been – perish the thought – had the intrepid Truman abided by the “just war” theory popularized by that sissy theologian, St. Augustine.
“You have a country friendly to the United States becoming the victim of unprovoked aggression from an unfriendly country,” Yglesias writes. “Pretty much everyone believes that South Korea has a right to fight back in its own defense. And it’s only a very small leap from a belief in self-defense to a belief in the idea of ‘collective self-defense’ whereby countries who are friendly to South Korea should help it out in its hour of need. That’s how Harry Truman saw it and that’s how I see it decades later.”
What I find interesting about this paragraph is not only Yglesias’ laughable stance that it’s but “a very small leap” from a belief in legitimate self-defense to a belief in the U.S. as policeman of the world, but what he lays out as one of his chief criteria justifying American intervention: that South Korea’s government was “friendly to the United States,” which was sort of a given at the time considering it was installed by the American government. This was of course exactly the criteria Truman used to justify U.S. involvement in the Korean civil war, rather than any concern about civilian life. “Unprovoked aggression” is only a concern to U.S. political leaders if aimed at an American proxy state, and the killing of innocents but a propaganda point if committed by an unfriendly power.
South Korea’s “U.S.-backed regime,” after all, killed “untold thousands of leftists and hapless peasants in the summer of terror in 1950,” often under the watch of American military advisers, as the Associated Press reported last year. According to South Korea’s government-sponsored Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a “very conservative” estimate would place the number of civilians executed by the South Korean regime at 100,000, and likely at least double that. And that’s on top of the thousands of civilians who died at the hands of the South Korean military on Jeju island well before the war started.
But these facts aren’t mentioned by Ygelsias since they don’t seem be relevant to his mode of thinking on foreign policy, much as civilian deaths weren’t relevant to Harry Truman, who considered dropping nuclear weapons on North Korea — after destroying its dams, cities and industrial infrastructure, killing one out of nine North Koreans. All that does matter is the fact that the U.S.-backed regime was friendly to the U.S. and was invaded, which is a neat little rationalization to justify a war that killed three million people all so South Korea could be ruled by a nationalistic capitalist dictator friendly to America rather than a nationalistic communist dictator who wasn’t.
Also, seemingly left unconsidered by humanitarian interventionists like Yglesias — who seems intent on proving that his backing for the Iraq war was no one-time error in judgment — is what to do with, or how to restrain, the massive military-industrial complex a policy of global intervention requires. So Korea was justified (it wasn’t), what about Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia? Or Iraq? What about U.S.-backed coups in Chile or Iran? Not mere aberrations, these unnecessary interventions are the inevitable consequences of anointing the United States government the defender of the world and establishing a permanent class of mercenaries and munitions makers whose interest it is in to agitate for conflicts and cold wars.
Consider how the U.S. military describes the aftermath of the national security state brought about by its involvement in Korea:
While Eisenhower did reduce military spending after the war, the U.S. armed forces remained much larger than they had been in 1950, possessed many more and increasingly powerful nuclear weapons, and were ensured a steady supply of manpower through the retention of conscription. The American military, after the humiliating and bloody defeats of the war’s first six months, shifted its focus from preparing for a World War II–type mobilization to maintaining forces ready for immediate use. This larger military, eager to put the frustrations of the Korean War behind it, now was widely dispersed around the world, including Indochina, where American advisers assisted the new Republic of Vietnam.