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October 26, 2005

Time for a US Foreign Legion?

One of the less pleasant realities of the modern world is that the US is -- whether we like it or not -- the world's policeman. From Kosovo to Liberia, from Somalia to the Sudan, if the "international community" (whatever that is), needs to intervene militarily to stop bad people from doing bad things to other people, the US will be required to do the lion's share of the heavy lifting.

The most conspicuous current example of US foreign policing responsibility is, of course, Iraq. Whether or not you agreed with the decision to invade (or liberate) Iraq, most Americans continue to believe in our obligation to support the new democratic government and prevent a bloody civil war. But, as the war's opponents celebrate the macabre milestone of the 2,000th dead US soldier, public support for the war continues to erode. And with the steady drum beat of Democratic calls for a "timetable" for pulling out US troops, how long can the Administration continue to hang tough in support of the Iraqi democratic experiment?

As Vietnam demonstrated, it is very hard for democracies to wage foreign wars. This is particularly true when a large portion of the population does not believe that vital national interests are at stake. Even with an all-volunteer, professional army (as we currently have), the sight of America's sons and daughters dying on television news is extremely unpopular.

Given the public's limited tolerance for US casualties, is it realistic to expect that America can meet it's responsibilities as the world's policeman? (Of course, isolationists and critics on the left would argue that it's not our problem. Instead, the UN or other international organizations should be responsible for maintaining order and protecting basic human rights throughout the world. I don't have time here to explain why this is wishful thinking rather than a realistic alternative, but trust me, it is.)

In Kosovo, Bill Clinton limited US intervention to medium altitude bombing in a (successful) effort to avoid US casualties. But this approach traded off increased civilian casualties to prevent US military deaths, which hardly seems terribly moral.

On the other hand, perhaps we can learn from our friends the French. I refer, of course, to that estimable institution the French Foreign Legion. Don't think Beau Geste. The Legion is still going strong and today consists of 10 battalions of elite infantry (with a strength of 7,700 men), serving in bases in France, Africa and Latin America. Legionnaires enlist for initial terms of five years, which can subsequently extended. After three years of satisfactory service, Legionnaires have the option of applying for French citizenship and residency rights.

A US foreign legion, organized along similar lines, would be a very attractive prospect for thousands of ambitious, aggressive young men seeking US citizenship and residency. In France, 10,000 applicants a year apply to join the Legion. This in spite of the requirement that candidates travel to France at their own expense (including obtaining a visa on their own) before they can apply. If the US accepted applicants at its embassies abroad, the number of potential recruits who would be eager to exchange, say, ten years of paid service for US citizenship would be enormous.

Of course, recruiting a mercenary army largely comprised of foreigners would be a vast departure from American practice and tradition. It would also be a very dangerous tool to give to any government: a politically painless (or less painful) means by which to wage war.

But if the alternative is failure to protect vital US strategic interests (like defeating radical Islamists in the Mideast) because of a lack of political will, maybe it is time to consider some different approaches.

October 26, 2005 at 07:00 PM | Permalink

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