Intervention and Securing Justice Abroad

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In May, President Obama announced that 450 additional military trainers would be sent to Iraq to train Iraqi troops in the fight against the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). After the administration declared an end to US military involvement last year, more than 3,000 US military personnel remain in Iraq. Although these troops are not intended to engage in combat, they are very near the front lines and defensive combat cannot be ruled out.

President Obama won election in 2008 partly on the pledge to get the United States out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is extremely reluctant to initiate another major intervention in the Middle East. The administration fears not only the great cost in lives and money, but also the unknown outcome. The Middle East has become a highly complicated quagmire of actors, religions, ethnicities and violence. The post-World War I Sykes-Picot agreement that structured the contemporary Middle East has fallen apart. ISIL is an incredibly brutal organization that continues to gain territory despite the Western-led bombing campaign, the civil war in Syria has now cost about 200,000 deaths and enormous structural damage, and there seems to be no end to the internecine ethnic and religious violence in Iraq.

Many will argue that we should just “let them sort it out.” But the problem runs deeper, and if justice is to be served, Christians need to ponder what our faith requires us to do. Do we intervene again with troops on the ground despite the uncertainties? (It probably would take several hundred thousand troops.) Do we step up the bombing campaign? Do we pour more money into the region?  Do we pursue diplomatic efforts?  All of the above? Or do we do nothing? Are humanitarian challenges sufficient for us to intervene? 

Virtually every country in the world has intervened into the affairs of one state or another and has exhibited specific trends and characteristics in its interventions. In this, the United States is no different. The United States has been an interventionist country for most of its history—sometimes for the best of reasons, but sometimes for reasons that are not very noble. Four pillars have determined the nature and timing of American intervention through history. Understanding these pillars can help us as Christian citizens better discern how our government’s engagement with other countries upholds the ends of justice or not.

The Pillars of US Intervention

First, the United States has needed a sufficient mix of political, economic and/or military power to carry out whatever kinds of intervention political leaders choose to pursue. The more American power in its various forms grew through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the more we intervened elsewhere. We grew into a formidable military, political, and economic power, protected by two very wide oceans. While at times these interventions could be morally justified, more often they could not. The common denominator in our interventions both past and present has been the use of overwhelming power. 

Second, intervention in other countries is built on the concept of American exceptionalism. This idea can be traced back to the earliest English settlements on the North American East Coast.  Even before John Winthrop (1587-1649) stepped off the ship in 1630, he proclaimed that the Massachusetts Bay Colony “shall be a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” Drawn from the Sermon on the Mount, Winthrop’s words have been a staple for American politicians ever since, not only in rhetoric, but as a basis for intervention abroad. However, Winthrop’s words—and by extension, the view of America’s place in the world—has provoked controversy that has lasted to this day. John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), speaking to restraint, famously said that America should serve as an example to others, but we do “not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” In contrast, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) spoke glowingly of the United States establishing an “empire of liberty.” Jefferson’s view has had much more influence on the direction of American policy and action.

Through the years, Winthrop’s words and Jefferson’s position have evolved into the bedrock belief that God has ordained the United States to be a special, exceptional nation, empowered with the right and responsibility to know truth and use power to establish it. While other countries have also viewed themselves as exceptional (like Britain and Spain when they established their empires beginning in the fifteenth century), only the United States has turned the idea of exceptionalism into “a civic religion”—a unique melding of nationalism and a certain understanding of Christianity that has given the United States the self-defined authority that what we do in the world is truly God’s work.  

Third are perceptions of American national interest. More ink has been spilled over trying to define, apply, and understand when the national interest is threatened than any other idea in political literature. There often is little agreement on exactly how we determine what is in the national interest, and even recognizing what is meant by “vital” national interest is open to interpretation. Consequently, policy makers tend to bandy the concept around, often employing it to justify action that already has taken place or is planned. The argument for national interest has been used to explain virtually every intervention throughout American history, regardless of the outcome. 

The context of time provides the fourth pillar upholding American intervention. As times change, so do the motives and means of American intervention. Intervention through the years has been driven by economic, political, and military motives as well as by pride, national honor, and the actions of others. During most of the nineteenth century—with the exception of the Civil War years—the United States was engaged in the pursuit of empire, much as Europe was doing. The early years of the century were spent expanding our borders across North America and beyond, all in the name of exceptionalism. The first half of the twentieth century was consumed by the “German problem” and the second half by the “Soviet problem.” Since then, we have faced a world of profound complexity, where we continue to proclaim our exceptionalism, but are unsure how to express it, what our national interests are, and how to use our power.

Intervention, Non-intervention, or Isolationism?

Advocates of intervention have routinely denounced their opponents as being isolationist whenever they do not see the wisdom of American intervention in one corner of the world or another.  Isolationism has become a negative label because it connotes an unwillingness to intervene even when vital American interests are involved and/or where American intervention can produce just results. But arguably, except for the immediate post World War I era, the United States has never been an isolationist country. Ours has been an almost unending saga of military, political, and economic intervention beyond our borders from the very beginning. 

For some, we are isolationists if we do not intervene in virtually each and every trouble spot around the world.  Consequently, how do we determine whether the absence of intervention in one place or another is isolationism? The accusation of isolationism is essentially a tool to deflect debate from the substance of an issue and to brand an opponent as an enemy of American patriotism. How then should American policy makers determine when, where, and why to intervene beyond our borders? 

Serving the Ends of Justice

For Christians, the point is not whether we are isolationists or devotees of constant, “muscular” intervention, but how the ends of justice are served. Directed by faith, we need to educate ourselves in understanding critical issues through reading, studying, discussing, hearing from the pulpit, and engaging policy makers. Involvement with this world is at the heart of most expressions of Christianity. The direction and implication for us is clear in many places in the Old and New Testaments. In Isaiah 1:17, we are taught to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” Moreover, social-political justice is well entwined in the writing of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers as well as in the many works dedicated to Catholic social-political teaching. 

As Christians, the guide for intervention in the affairs of another state—especially military intervention—must be just war doctrine. Honed over many centuries, just war criteria (jus bellum iustum) provide the test to determine whether military intervention is warranted. Just war doctrine demands that moral rectitude must undergird the reason for going to war (jus ad bellum). Once at war (jus in bello), combat must be governed by self-defense with a reasonable possibility of success; it must be pursued to punish a guilty enemy as an action of last resort and should not create a still greater evil. How then, do the traditional pillars of American intervention stack up against just war doctrine?

Power is indispensable and ubiquitous in international politics, but it must be used judiciously and in forms that are appropriate to the situation.  Using power appropriately requires superb knowledge of the nature of the issue we are facing, and for Christians, the situation must be viewed through the prism of just war criteria. Throughout American history, just war doctrine has been raised in Christian circles and among representatives of other religions, but it has almost never been raised by policy makers when contemplating or planning for military action.  For example, a serious discussion about just war criteria before the American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 would have benefitted from an examination of just war doctrine.

American exceptionalism presents even more complexity because it often uses various interpretations of Christianity to advance uniquely secular ends. Using the flag to carry the cross—quite common in our history--is dangerous for both church and state and has led to some of the most unfortunate and morally questionable interventions in American history. While our country has done great good in the world, we also have caused considerable harm by assuming that we have been placed here by God to save the world through our intervention. There is a big difference between being sure that God is on our side and begging God to help us understand right from wrong and asking for His guidance. This is the essence of just war criteria—pleading for God’s help in attempting to determine when, where, and under what circumstances armed intervention is justified.

Considering the national interest is a legitimate undertaking because in its most positive form, it seeks to define forces that will harm and help the country. But, as with power, the concept of national interest must be used in a responsible and positive manner and needs to be understood in moral terms before it is understood in security, political, or economic terms. Too often it has been a smoke screen for foolish invasions, counterproductive economic boycotts and missed opportunities to relieve humanitarian disasters. We have legitimate national interests, but we must pursue them with just ends in mind.

Finally, it is absolutely critical to understand when, where, and how to intervene in the context of time. The elements of just war doctrine may be timeless, but their application is not.  Understanding context is especially important as we witness the unfolding of the globalization process—the rise of competing economic, political and military power centers and the concomitant decline in American power and influence. Too often we have looked to a very different past for what we should do now and in the future. For example, our victories in World War II and the Cold War, wedded to an enduring American exceptionalism, have led to a sense of triumphalism and invincibility that is dangerously out of sync with contemporary reality. The current context requires a sober and humble examination of this twenty-first century environment and chief among these is understanding how just war doctrine must be applied.

In the final analysis, a guideline for the use of our military must be a robust discussion of our plans for military intervention and whether or not various conflict situations meet the demands of just war doctrine. This must be coupled with a willingness to not act to intervene when they do not. The responsibility to exercise sober judgment is placed not only upon our national leaders and policy makers, but also upon Christian citizens as they work to shape the political community so it reflects adherence to this guideline. The grave decisions about how—if at all—we meet the challenge posed by ISIL and the “new” Middle East demand nothing less.

- Steven E. Meyer is a former intelligence professional and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.