National Interests Worth Fighting For?

An American Soldier stands watch after an IED explosion.

By Andrew Kragie

It’s been a hell of a month. The United States has faced three international crises: a Russian-supported insurgency in Ukraine, a growing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and a terrorist group that has taken control of vast swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Each of these challenges has been called a threat to America’s national interests. Earlier this month, a Washington Post­-ABC News poll found that 91 percent of Americans believe the terrorist group ISIL constitutes “a serious threat to the vital interests of the United States.” Certainly ISIL is brutal and inhumane, as evidenced by videotaped beheadings of Western hostages and the mass execution of unarmed Iraqi prisoners. But does the group really threaten our country’s “vital interests”? To answer that basic question, we must turn to American history and government policy to define our vital interests.

The Constitution’s preamble gives the framers’ purpose in creating a centralized government: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The founding fathers saw the primary job of the federal government as keeping the peace and protecting the country from foreign enemies.

In Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Walter Russell Mead identifies a few vital interests that even the most moderate president would defend. This “Hamiltonian” conception of the national interest starts with America’s unique geographical blessing: a lack of great powers on its borders who could threaten its territory. Given the relatively low threat of invasion, America’s interests focus more on preventing hostile powers from dominating entire regions, and securing the means for trade and economic growth. Hamiltonian interests include freedom of the seas—both military and commercial—as well as unhindered trade, access to raw materials, and a stable international monetary system.

Our conception of the national interest has gradually expanded beyond the strict constitutional conception or the commercially oriented Hamiltonian approach. The expansions often come when a president announces a policy shift that, in hindsight, gets labeled a “doctrine.” In 1803 Monroe demanded that European powers stay out of the Western Hemisphere, allowing the fledgling country to avoid wars with great powers and develop its economy. Harry Truman declared in 1947 that the United States would assist countries that were “resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside [i.e. Soviet] pressures.” When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, American policymakers (incorrectly) interpreted the invasion as a stepping stone; Jimmy Carter announced that any attempt to “to gain control of the Persian Gulf region [would] be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.”

Though America has issued doctrines and declarations that go beyond direct interests, strategic planners were guided by an underlying understanding of the country’s truly vital interests.

Though doctrines and other policy shifts have augmented what policymakers consider national interests, “vital” interests remained narrowly defined even in the 21st century despite what I would call “interest creep.” The National Security Strategy (NSS) is a document prepared every few years to guide policymaking across the federal government from diplomacy to trade negotiations to war planning.

Bill Clinton’s final NSS, published in 2000, “divide[d] our national interests into three categories: vital, important, and humanitarian.” The document narrowly defined “[v]ital interests [as] those directly connected to the survival, safety, and vitality of our nation. Among these are the physical security of our territory and that of our allies, the safety of our citizens both at home and abroad, protection against WMD proliferation, the economic well-being of our society, and the protection of our critical infrastructures.”

These various definitions of our vital national interests can help us think about ISIL and the threat it poses. The 2000 NSS would ask whether the group has shown a capacity to threaten “the physical security of our territory.” Certainly we have to worry about Westerners fighting with ISIL and returning to conduct isolated attacks, but their numbers and capabilities are limited; in May, U.S. intelligence estimated the number of returned American ISIL fighters to be between six and 12. A Hamiltonian would take comfort in the group’s small numbers and lack of a navy. A strict constitutionalist would say it can’t threaten our country with invasion. A Carter Doctrine adherent would ask whether the group threatens to seize the Persian Gulf and its oil production? Though they might dream of such a feat, an expert has explained why it is improbable.

Ramzy Mardini, a former Iraq expert at the State Department and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said in an interview with NPR that ISIL only controls Sunni territory which was easy to conquer because the Shia-dominated Iraqi army was unwilling to defend it. “Sunni insurgents have been taking Sunni-dominated provinces. It’s basically thriving within its natural habitat.” Mardini argued that ISIL is unlikely to take any additional territory, saying that “[t]he easiest dominoes have already fallen, and the other ones are much, much harder…. The borders that confine the Islamic State have pretty much expanded to their outer potential.”

Americans are scared of ISIL. It is undeniably a brutal group—but we need to step back and ask what it threatens. The group’s control of Sunni-dominated areas does not threaten our homeland, its “domestic Tranquility,” or our core economic interests—though we do need to prevent another terrorist safe haven. In 2003, we let fear drive us to a rash decision about what to do in Iraq. ISIL demands our attention and potentially our military action. But before we rush into yet another war in the Middle East—and commit resources that we may eventually need to counter threats like Ebola and Russian aggression—we need to ask: what interests are worth fighting for?

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