There are lots of wars we don’t feel like getting into

Elton Wong

Whenever our country starts debating whether or not to involve its military in any endeavor, we hear the phrase “American lives” tossed around with abandon.

It happened during the Gulf War, and I’m hearing it more and more now over Kosovo. Last week’s Time printed a survey which reported that 74 percent of Americans “would not be willing to sacrifice American lives to achieve U.S. goals in Kosovo.” This is especially interesting when you consider that the stated goal of the U.S. in Kosovo is the prevention of atrocities and ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Kosovars have already been killed by the Serb Army. The purpose of U.S. intervention is to stop more people from being killed.

What I’ve been wondering is this: What is the precise ratio of the value of an American life to the life of a non-American? Obviously it’s greater than one. But what is it? Two? 40? 100?

Does the value of a foreigner vary depending on what country they’re from? I hope someone has made these calculations because otherwise, we’d have nothing to base our foreign policies on except guesswork and wishy-washy ideas about values.

And nothing is worse than a wishy-washy policy. When Congress debates sending troops to Kosovo or wherever, they should come up with a solid, defined ratio, and from there estimate probabilities, costs and estimated degrees of success.

Instead of holding debates about stopping wars and ethnic cleansing, they can plug the numbers into the equation. Many disagreements about foreign military involvement can be reduced to mathematics — not even very complicated mathematics. I don’t know what this equation will look like, but I have friends in statistics who would.

Once those fat-cat bureaucrats in Washington get off their asses and get that done, we can calculate how much money each life, American and non-American, is worth. This would help us when we must decide how much aid to send to other countries, as opposed to spending it on ourselves. We’re not terribly consistent in that area either.

A lot of Americans are from other countries. I remember Pat Buchanan talked about denying welfare to recent immigrants because they haven’t paid enough taxes to deserve them. Since Americans are worth more than non-Americans, we’d have to determine at what point immigrants move up the scale from their “foreign value” to their new “American value.” It’s a complicated process, but those policy makers in Washington should be earning their bread somehow.

It might be difficult to put this numerical system into practice. For instance, America is intervening in Kosovo, but the bloody civil wars in Sierra Leone, Congo and Sudan aren’t attracting our attention.

They aren’t even in the news. During Clinton’s administration, half a million people were massacred in Rwanda, but no one intervened. It must not have been worth American lives. We can’t be the world’s policeman, after all. Plus, we can’t ignore the emotional distress that Americans would face if all this unpleasantness were brought out into the open. At some point we have to ask ourselves “is it really worth it?”

This latest intervention in Kosovo is a bit strange. We aren’t really in Kosovo to protect our own interests. Why the sudden concern? When we set up all those dictatorships in South America, we didn’t care about oppression or gross violation of human rights.

Inconsistencies like these are the result of a lack of defined policy. The way to avoid inconsistency is to quantify and calculate. Once we do this, I’m confident that our involvement in foreign affairs will dwindle. The American public is behind me.

The message that the Time poll sends is that Americans want to look after Americans first. We can’t be concerned with events that take place on the other side of the world when they don’t affect us. We have our own concerns to worry about, such as what we should do with all our money, our economy and our astronomically high standard of living. It isn’t all fun and games. We have problems of our own that demand our time. If we don’t look after our own interests, who will?

Elton Wong is a sophomore in biology from Ames.