I’m sure most of you are familiar with the old proverb, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Well, I’ve gone and mixed my metaphors most dreadfully by combining it with, “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.” Yes, I am now taking a proverb about horse teeth, mixing it with Greek history/mythology, and am going to use it to illustrate a point about a failed tenant of American foreign policy; I never said I was good at this.
The policy I am referring to is arming peoples that are viewed as either friendly, sympathetic, or merely fall into the nebulous category of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It is an American tradition far older than apple pie or baseball, and one which continues to beguile both politicians and military leaders alike. It carries with it none of the economic, moral, or strategic baggage that actual military intervention carries with it. American taxpayers support it because in their minds it doesn’t cost as much and it means our boys in uniform get to stay home with their families (they don’t, by the way, they have to go on a field exercise, again, for the second weekend in a row). Politicians can throw some M-16’s and grenades to some sympathetic-looking foreign rebel militia to show that they are actively “doing something.”
So where does this penchant for tossing weapons to some people we barely know come from (aka, where can we place the blame)? Naturally, we come by it through our older brother, Great Britain, that most conniving and brilliant of colonizers. Once England had established colonies in North America in the mid-17th century, they began to use them for their centuries-old conflict with the French. And who better to draw into that fight than the native Indian nations. Now granted, both the French and the English provided arms to the Indians. The French, however, kept a firm hand on the gifts that they provided their allies. They also engaged their native allies culturally and established close working relationships that were out of proportion to the number of French colonists in North America. The British responded to this “culture gap” by throwing weapons into it. The growth of firearms used by Indian nations in New England led to a shift in their power structure, which, combined with other events, led to the most devastating conflict in North America (demographically speaking): King Philip’s War. Beginning in 1675, a number of Indian nations banded together to drive the English and their native allies into the sea. By 1676, the war was over, but half of the colonial settlements had been destroyed. In addition, English reprisals would destroy Indian-European relationships for the future.
By the 1700’s, the English and French were at it again, fighting a number of wars on the continent that spilled over into colonial fighting in North America. Both sides armed their allies, with the British providing more arms. Still, the British got their asses kicked in the French and Indian War until they negotiated a settled peace with the Indian Nations that revolved around a steady supply of gifts (like arms and powder) and promises of Indian territorial autonomy. Naturally, this last promise was already broken by 1763, when the war ended. The British faced a united Indian insurgency that same year led by a charismatic leader called Pontiac. It was not until the next year when the Indian supply of arms and ammunition began to dry up due to British embargo that the hostilities would cease, after catastrophic losses to the British Army. Now granted, the British had much better success arming the Iroquois and other native allies during the Revolutionary War, but even this became unsustainable into the early 1800’s as American foreign policy could point to this as continued aggression (and did, which partially contributed to the stupidest U.S. war, the War of 1812).
Well, you know how it is, when an older brother does something, the younger sibling will watch and emulate. The brand new United States started out pretty well by not throwing weapons at anything that uttered “democracy,” mainly because they didn’t have any weapons to give. They even managed not to publicly provide arms to the freelance invasions of Central and Latin America that took place in the mid-1800s (also, where we get our term “filibuster“). In part, this was due to America’s isolationist stance in world politics, where not even the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe could cause the U.S. to break out of isolationist lock-step. Still, private citizens could and would donate weapons where they liked. Weapons were given to the Filibusteros of Latin America in the 1850’s, cartloads were sent from North and South to Kansas around the same time to settle the slave-state/no-slave-state debate, and weapons were even sent to Europe during the Revolutions of 1848. The U.S. did not provide weapons to the Philippine Rebels under Aguinaldo in 1898, but officials did provide offers of support. This ended in disaster when the U.S. claimed not to have made any promises and Aguinaldo went rogue, beginning what is popularly known as the Philippine Insurrection. The U.S. even managed to stay neutral during the Spanish Civil War, despite U.S. citizens providing support to both sides.
It was World War II that simultaneously ended isolationism and made the U.S. a global superpower. The problem with being a superpower of course, is that you usually have a nemesis. And the U.S. had a lovely nemesis, by the name of the Soviet Union. Isolationism ended quickly, as the U.S. began providing arms and military training to pretty much everyone who said they were anti-communist. Some lovely examples of successes include Honduras, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. Oh, wait. No, those are bad. Very, very bad. Yes, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan drove the Soviets out. And then took over the country, 9/11, etc, etc, etc. You know the story. In fact, rarely is there ever a good outcome to the U.S. arming local militias, as this Atlantic article points out.
Which brings us to the present day. Yesterday I was driving through northern New York and western Massachusetts, where towns had experienced the violence surrounding arms proliferation in the 17th and 18th century. Listening to the news, I heard of continued fighting in Libya (where the U.S.-backed rebels had splintered into factions and are fighting each other), of Islamic State fighters in Iraq (who split with other U.S.-armed rebel groups in Syria and have gone off to wage “holy war”), and of continuing violence in Ukraine (where some people say our next shipments should go to). I would caution against even doing this; Putin just may be regretting his own decisions to give a bunch of drunk farmers-turned-soldiers sophisticated weapons and training. Maybe we should take a look at a couple hundred years of experience and realize that throwing arms and money at a conflict will not solve it.
What then is the solution, you ask? If I knew the answer to that question you’d be reading this in a major foreign policy publication, not a tiny blog.
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