U.S. Intervention: Where it Went Wrong 

by Juliette Reyes

AUGUST 16, 2019


Loung Un, at the age of 5, only knew yellow ribbons and scribbled crayon pictures. But in the year 1975, Loung quickly learned that playtime was over. The Khmer Rouge, a communist insurgency group, had achieved their long-awaited goal; a complete takeover of Cambodia.  


After President Gerald Ford recalled troops from South Vietnam and the remainder of Southeast Asia, a deteriorating situation detonated. The Khmer Rouge wasted no time to seize power and take advantage of the situation, cursing Cambodia to be a subject under communism for years. But while the Khmer Rouge has the majority of Cambodian blood on their hands, Uncle Sam has a considerable amount dripping from his fingers.

While the US did not directly institute a murderous regime in Cambodia or build grueling labor camps, indirectly they helped these things come to fruition. This is not a first in US Foreign Policy, as over the course of decades American intervention has been sloppy and destructive, rarely taking into consideration the regional and cultural factors that make geopolitical conflicts so complex. On the other hand, this is not to say that US intervention should cease, but rather this work encourages the opposite; a more active and comprehensive intervention strategy. Over the course of this paper, we will analyze several conflicts and diplomacy operations, and observe how they relate to a universal trend in US foreign policy.


1954: The North Vietnamese Worker’s Party begins aiding the communist South Vietnamese rebels and their crusade against the democratic government. Eventually, sometime around the 1960s, the US begins involvement. However while the US, under President Richard Nixon had good intentions, they merely made the war worse and can even be blamed in part for why Vietnam is communist today. The fatal flaw of US intervention in Vietnam was that the US did not take care to adapt to the guerilla tactics of the North Vietnamese militias and did not take care of the innocent populations disproportionality affected.


Without any utilization of safety zones for infrastructure rebuilding and humanitarian relieve, many of the South Vietnamese caught in the crossfire had no choice but to turn to communist rogue forces for survival. In addition, the US tried to fight South Vietnam’s war, rather than equip South Vietnam with the weaponry and intelligence they needed to fight their own battle. And to top it all off, the US began dropping bombs like it was passing out candy, giving illiberal forces in Southeast Asia all the ammunition they needed for the perfect propaganda regime. Had the US created a network of safety zones for civilians, aided in humanitarian efforts, and took care to adapt their offensive strategy; the Vietnam war may have had a different, less bloody outcome. 


Decades later, you would assume that American policymakers would change their tune? The answer to that is sadly, no. In fact, during 2002, the US engaged in yet again another war, one that we’re still fighting today; The Afghanistan War. After the 9/11 massacre, President George W. Bush was determined to protect the american people by engaging and winning the “war on terror”, and one of his prime targets was Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a South Asian nation that borders the Middle East, for years the Soviet Union consolidated power over the country during the Cold War, but when the US wanted to combat the spread of Russian authoritarianism, they decided to fund the Mujahedeen (later known as the Taliban).


Ironically, after the Soviets were pushed out of the small nation, the Taliban consolidated power and instituted a new authoritarian regime. For 16 years the US has been fighting in Afghanistan simply due to a careless foreign policy decision.


The US needs to intervene, but they should regulate and monitor militias they sponsor to ensure they don’t cancel one problem out with another. When returning back to the Bush administration’s approach to Afghanistan they had to a degree attempted this, but it was never fully implemented. Hence why to this day the US is fighting a battle it cannot win, the citizens in Afghanistan do not trust the US, and the more failed bombings and raids we conduct, only result in their resentment for America’s “star-spangled hammer of justice”. The current Trump Administration has a “new strategy” in Afghanistan that involves utilizing allies, it's important that they also consider our allies to be the local people who are struggling to defend their families from slaughter.


During my freshman year of high school, my friends were convinced that South Sudan wasn’t a real country. And for a while this was funny, but looking back now it only appalls me, considering the fact that South Sudan has been struggling with a nationwide genocide for years.


But nevertheless, it only highlights how distant Americans are to global issues of violence, hunger, and economic disparity. The simple fact is as Americans; we don’t know and thus don’t care. To bring some context, South Sudan was originally apart of Sudan, a North African country with a high Muslim population. The southern part of Sudan was home to millions of non-Islamic ethnic groups that were constantly battling the discriminatory northern government. Eventually, around 2005-2011, President Obama and the UN officiated the separation of the South from the North, sounds pretty good right? Wrong. Although the separation of the two populations was needed, the US went a step further than condemned South Sudan for a path of bloodshed and political instability. 


 The Government quickly elected its president, Salva Kiir, who then asked Riek Machar to be his Vice President. The problem was that South Sudan has over 60 ethnic groups, each with its own traditions and rivals. The two major groups are the Dinka and the Nuer who happen to be long-time rivals. When the two groups attempted unity, it failed miserably, resulting in a corrupt, military-based government. Eventually, President Kiir got rid of his Vice President, who then retaliated with his own militias against the Government. This all resulted in one of the most devastating massacres in history, according to the Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, over 50,000 people have been killed and over 4 million are displaced.


Child soldiers, forced cannibalism, and rape are common as the police even turn on citizens. The Economy is in utter disarray with a rising inflation rate. And where is the US? Nowhere at all. The US did not intervene when the government began to radicalize nor when the former Vice President turned against the country. In fact, even in recent peace talks between the African Union and the two warring ethnic groups, the US is as absent as ever.  As I stated earlier, Intervention is a good thing, in the book “The Clash of Civilizations”, Samuel Huntington explains that when the US gets involved in global conflicts it can only be effective when we realize that not every country is the same and we stop trying to make our goal westernization. He goes on that because the US adopts a policy of one size fits all, we don’t understand the nuances of cultural clashes and thus only make the situation worse. But he also points out, that doing nothing is not the better alternative either.


The world is complex, but when the US takes time to forge connections to developing countries and understand new cultures, not only do we have a more diverse world but a more progressive and prosperous one as well.


In the movie, First They Killed My Father, Loung struggles with how a rogue regime could even get power in the first place. Five-year-olds should not have to learn how to wield guns or be forced to scavenge for food. Which is why the United States, as the leader and founder of the “International Liberal Order”, must maintain its responsibility and adopt a more comprehensive and effective foreign policy. Especially in the times of “America First”, we must remember not “America Only”. Safety zones and specialized local militias are a great start.


Harnessing growth and education with modern infrastructure projects is the ideal path. But most importantly, learning both the political and cultural problems of a country (developing or developed) is vital to actual growth and success towards peace. I write this article solely to urge present-day youth to read about what's going on in the world such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, the South Sudanese Civil War, and even other topics I did not have the chance to cover such as the Myanmar Genocide. Because while these problems may seem miles and oceans away, everything in global politics is connected, and when we turn our back on the world, eventually, the world turns its back on us.