How and in what way should the United States become involved in the internal affairs of other countries? That question will be increasingly debated in this election year. President Barack Obama has said that America should use military force unilaterally, if necessary, when our security or that of our allies is threatened. When not but conscience urges the country to act — such as a dictator killing a large number of his citizens — the U.S. should not act alone and only use force if there is a good prospect for success. These are reasonable principles, but what if forbearance in a civil war like Syria’s allows a terrorist group to establish a safe haven? And, what if that safe haven is not only a humanitarian disaster, but has spillover effects on significant interests such as the migration crisis in Europe?

Finding degrees of intervention that do not become a slippery slope will not be easy. Despite his early transformational rhetoric, Obama has made prudence his hallmark, but many senators, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, to name a few, have criticized Obama’s caution. The Hippocratic oath of “first do no harm” is an important maxim in foreign policy as in medicine. The U.S. must try to influence outcomes by hard and soft power means, but we should stay out of the business of invasion and occupation. In an age of nationalism and socially mobilized populations, foreign occupation is bound to breed resentment. President Eisenhower wisely reached that conclusion in the 1950s. Particularly in the Middle East, smart application of military force will be difficult.

As James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, recently told columnist David Ignatius, “Even after the extremists are defeated in Iraq and Syria, we’ll be in a perpetual state of suppression for a long time. The U.S. can’t fix it. The fundamental issues they have — the large population bulge of disaffected young males, ungoverned spaces, economic challenges and the availability of weapons — won’t go away for a long time. Somehow, the expectation is that we can find the silver needle and we’ll create ‘the city on a hill,’ but that’s not realistic.”


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