Last month, Ron Paul said he would not have ordered the military action that ended in the death of Osama Bin Laden. In his view, “It was absolutely not necessary.” Never mind that the raid by Navy SEALS fulfilled what had been a stated U.S. foreign-policy objective since 2001, tracking down and punishing the perpetrators of 9/11; Pakistan’s “sovereignty” is more important.
That view is consistent with the belief that the U.S. should remain politically and militarily uninvolved in other countries’ internal affairs. But this purist doctrine of non-interventionism is contrary to the founding principles of America’s early foreign policy.
In books, interviews, and speeches, Congressman Paul has advocated a doctrine of non-interventionism, apparently applicable in all cases whatsoever. In the case of the bin Laden raid, Paul argues that the United States had no more right to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty than to violate England’s, had Bin Laden hypothetically been lodged in London instead of Abbottabad.
But bin Laden was not in London, and for an obvious reason: The United Kingdom is an ally, in the true sense of the word. Pakistan, it seems, is not. Nevertheless, the strict non-interventionist argues that the U.S. should have respected Pakistan’s sovereignty.
The Founding Fathers were no strangers to difficult foreign-policy decisions. When faced with the choice of whether to allow Barbary pirates to attack American ships of commerce or to punish the perpetrators of those attacks, President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison chose the latter.
In 1801, just 13 years after the Constitution was ratified, the United States built six frigates and dispatched a naval squadron to seek out and punish the piracy endangering the life and property of American citizens. The Barbary States were undeniably punished by a U.S. naval attack on Tripoli and a landing of Marines on the Barbary Coast, where they captured the Ottoman city of Derma. A blatant violation of the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, this attack met a U.S. foreign-policy objective fully in keeping with America’s guiding principles of maintaining independence abroad, ensuring freedom, and preserving peace.
Strict non-interventionists would apparently object to this historical deployment of the Marines on foreign soil to ensure Americans’ safety in another hemisphere; for the current claim of non-interventionism is conspicuously dogmatic and equally imprudent. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the isolationist views of the 1930s and bears little resemblance to the Founders’ foreign-policy approach.
While a policy of non-intervention is sometimes appropriate, the doctrine of non-interventionism is an isolationist policy which limits the options available to America. It is a limitation that the Founders rejected and so should we. In the years 1783–1860, the U.S. engaged in military action nearly 60 times around the globe. These military actions in the service of America’s interests and principles were both defensive and, at times, interventionist.
The true consistency of American foreign policy is to be found not in its policies, which ought to prudently change and adapt, but in its guiding principles, which should be unchanging and permanent. America is a defender of liberty at home. Abroad, it maintains its independence and pursues its interests while standing for the idea of political freedom across the globe.
From the justice dealt to Osama bin Laden and the ongoing struggle against radical Islam, to standing stalwartly for freedom against rising totalitarian economic powers, the Founders’ principles for America’s role in the world have great relevance today. But this is true only if we understand it as it truly was, and not as a simplistic notion of doctrinaire non-interventionism.
Marion Smith is a graduate fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.
First appeared in National Review Online