It’s wrong in the way Jessup’s speech is wrong. We might need some men on some walls, but we don’t need Jessup on that wall. Isolating Cuba, refusing to trade with them, and imposing embargoes didn’t do any good, and did a lot of harm.
Tesón thinks the Iraqis should be grateful to the United States for liberating them from Saddam. I agree that Saddam was an illegitimate and non-authoritative ruler (heck, I don’t think even quite good regimes like Canada and Australia qualify as legitimate or authoritative), and that Saddam had forfeited his right to life, but that’s not enough to justify intervention. One has to take into account the likely consequences of such intervention, including projected deaths to innocent civilians. The case was weak before hand, and in retrospect, the most pessimistic predictions came true.
There is a case for a big and powerful US military. The analogy is to an stereotypical American jail: Imagine you’ve unfortunate enough to end up in an American jail, a brutal sodomy factory. You’ve got a bunch of gangs of misfits. To protect yourself, you’ve got to show you’re tough, so you’ve got to show you’re ready and able to kick ass. Moreover, if you can organize a strong enough gang on your side, you might be able to make the jail a bit more peaceful than it otherwise would be, because you keep the other gangs in check.
Many people, e.g., Loren Lomasky and Thomas Cushman in the comments on Tesón’s post, say the US is a bit like that. There are lots of crazies out there, and what keeps them in check is US military might. Europe can afford to spend lavishly on social welfare because we subsidize and enforce peace.
There’s something to this line of argument; it’s at least partly right, I think.
But this kind of argument suffers from the same problem that many theodicies face. (A theodicy is an attempt to explain and justify why God would allow evil.) For a theodicy to succeed, it’s not enough to justify some apparent evil, to show that some of what appears evil at first glance turns out to be necessary. Rather, one needs to justify all the (apparent) evil that actually obtains in the world. Similarly, for the conservative argument to succeed in justifying US military adventures, it’s not enough to justify some of what the US does. One needs to justify all of it.
That’s going to be really difficult to do with most US military action over the past 50 years.