What happened in Afghanistan this week is no surprise, as iterations of the same imperialist phenomenon are littered throughout American history. The motivations of past U.S. invasions, such as in the Philippines, Vietnam and the very birth of the U.S. itself, are all based in the same central tenets of colonialism: domination and superiority. The history of interventionism shows us the foundation of this practice, how it has evolved, and the devastation that comes with it. More importantly, this history urges a radical shift in foreign policy, without which the cycle of imperialism will continue. 

The American presumption of dominance originates from the beginning of the nation, Manifest Destiny. Following the American Revolution in 1775-83, early Americans immediately began looking westward. The “God-given” right to expand categorized Indigenous people as “uncivilized,” and the early Americans aimed to “civilize” them. The United States justified the murder, displacement and forced assimilation of Indigenous people with the racist assumption that they could not govern themselves. This justification based in supremacy is the common denominator of American intervention.

In 1899, the U.S. and the Philippines began a four-year war over the annexation of the southern pacific nation. American motivation included seeking economic opportunity and establishing a military stronghold in the region before other international superpowers could, but most prominently the belief that Filipinos were unable to self-govern. In the years between the Philippine-American War and the Vietnam War, 19th and early 20th century imperialism was on the decline. Between World War II and 1991, U.S. foreign intervention was principally motivated by the Cold War. The Vietnam War was largely justified by the “domino theory” – if one Southeast Asian country adopted communism, then others would as well. 

In addition to the similarity in justification throughout America’s history of intervention, all the outcomes proved to have disastrous, lasting effects. Indigenous people endured forced migrations and assimilation, as well as murders and kidnappings that continue today. The Philippine-American War brought the deaths of 4,200 Americans and over 20,000 Filipinos. Despite the Philippines gaining independence in 1946, the United States ensured economic dominance: the 1946 Bell Trade Act gave American corporations equal access to Filipino resources, equated American and Filipino currency, and established tariff benefits, thus making the Philippines dependent on the United States. Finally, the Vietnam War resulted in the loss of millions of Vietnamese lives, thousands of American lives, and over $120 billion American dollars. Vietnam proved that the U.S. does not have the power to successfully change a foreign country’s regime, and that an attempt to do so is a waste of lives and money. 

Ideally, the history of failed intervention would have prevented the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan, but the “War on Terror” declared by President George W. Bush after September 11 stayed true to pattern. History could not have repeated itself more blatantly, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan just days after the recent American retreat – akin to how communism was adopted in Vietnam after the war.

The consequences of failed intervention extend past the obvious devastation in the invaded countries. In the United States, taxpayers will be repaying the debt accumulated over the past 20 years on the war in Afghanistan for generations and military costs reached 2 trillion dollars. What’s even more disappointing is that this astonishing cost ended up benefitting the enemy, because Taliban forces captured Afghan military facilities and seized the weapons and devices funded by the United States. 

Despite the years passed since Manifest Destiny and the fade of traditional colonialism, American foreign involvement is still steeped with imperialism. Regardless of how invasion is boxed, marketed and sold, superiority is still at its core. Breaking a tradition that has lasted for hundreds of years is not an easy feat, but the costs of American imperialism are too calamitous not to try. Perhaps the United States should listen to the words of George Washington, who warned against foreign entanglement and military obsession, “Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” Isolationism could be the force to break the American cycle of violence, yet as globalism continues to tie the world together, it may be too late.