The Faux Liberal Foreign Policy Debate

President George W. Bush has faced surprisingly little serious opposition while taking the U.S. down an international primrose path. The Left was divided on his mad adventure in Iraq, with most leading Democrats, including 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry and potential 2008 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton backing the administration.

Many of those who opposed Bush appeared to do so for partisan or even personal reasons. Rather than take his case for war seriously and refute it, they fulminated about Halliburton, rehashed the 2000 election controversy, and offered nonexistent alternatives.

Few were able to explain why Bush’s proposed attack on a genuine human monster who had sought WMD was not in America’s national interest. Most liberal critics, such as general and then presidential candidate Wesley Clark, remained unapologetic supporters of President Bill Clinton’s joyride in Kosovo – a place with less strategic value, a killing field with far fewer bodies, a dictator with dramatically less threatening ambitions, and an attack with as little international legal sanction. In short, it was impossible to take the Left seriously during the Iraq debate, even though they were far closer to being correct than were conservatives, most of whom genuflected as the president charted his disastrous course.

Unfortunately, little has changed three and a half years after the invasion. The Left remains depressingly clueless about global strategy even as administration policy has gone from bad to worse. Yes, liberals have noticed that the president and his senior aides are uniformly arrogant and incompetent. The Left points out how dissembling, name-calling, and demagoguery are the administration’s trademark responses to any problem or setback. Democrats highlight the fantasy world within which President Bush appears to make policy.

But what is the Left’s view of world events? More important, what do liberals think our foreign policy should be?

For most of them, whether they supported or opposed intervening in Iraq, it is Clinton administration redux: moralistic and promiscuous foreign intervention, preferably multilateral rather than unilateral. Many liberals, and especially Democratic politicians, are no less disciples of Woodrow Wilson than are President Bush and the neoconservative coterie surrounding him. In short, they want to ignite war around the globe in the name of promoting democracy, only do so competently and under the United Nations flag.

Thankfully, some on the Left recognize the problem of resting the case against Iraq on the unique failings of the bunglers currently running U.S. policy. For instance, Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias forthrightly challenge liberal hawks who now criticize the administration only for its ineptitude.

Write Rosenfeld and Yglesias:

"Though defending the competence of the Bush administration is a fool’s endeavor, administrative bungling is simply not the root source of America’s failure in Iraq. The alternative scenarios liberal hawks retrospectively envision for a successful administration of the war reflect blithe assumptions – about the capabilities of the U.S. military and the prospects for nation building in polities wracked by civil conflict – that would be shattered by a few minutes of Googling.

"The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge – a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place. In part, the dodge helps protect its exponents from personal embarrassment. But it also serves a more important, and dangerous, function. Liberal hawks see themselves as defenders of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention – such as the Clinton-era military campaigns in Haiti and the Balkans – and as advocates for the role of idealism and values in foreign policy. The dodgers believe that to reject the idea of the Iraq War is, necessarily, to embrace either isolationism or, even worse, in their world view, realism."

But focusing on the arguments of liberals who originally backed the war is a mistake. The Rosenfeld-Yglesias criticism applies no less trenchantly to leftists who opposed the war not out of principle, but because of their doubts about President Bush. Had President Bill Clinton decided in 1999 to initiate regime change in Iraq rather than occupy a section of Serbia, most of Bush’s liberal critics would have cheered themselves hoarse, using arguments that sounded eerily close to those advanced by the neoconservatives four years later.

In fact, the desperate attempt by liberal notables to distinguish their program of promiscuous intervention from the Bush program of promiscuous intervention demonstrates how little difference there really is between the two perspectives.

For example, The New Republic‘s Peter Beinart has authored a new book seeking to recreate “Truman’s anti-totalitarian liberalism.” Beinart endorses the Kosovo bombing as “a multilateral war” to prevent “ethnic cleansing.” He wants the anti-totalitarian campaign he supports to be based on “international institutions and international law.”

When she was secretary of state, Madeleine Albright talked endlessly about the lessons of Munich, sounding like the many Bush administration officials who can’t make a statement or speech about any foreign policy topic without denouncing “appeasement.” Her inability to tell the difference between Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic mirrors the neoconservative inability to tell the difference between Hitler and the series of petty dictators whom they want to oust. Still, she is critical of the Bush administration – while blathering about “realistic idealism” and continued “support” for democracy abroad, as if that were a real alternative to the GOP’s policy.

Robert Wright of the New American Foundation suggests “progressive realism.” Washington should promote the nation’s interest but, conveniently, the national interest incorporates traditional liberal concerns, warranting continuing intervention abroad – perhaps even more intervention than that pressed by neocon armchair warriors. For instance, Wright contends that “the slaughter in Darfur, though a humanitarian crisis, is also a security issue.” So full speed ahead on another war, apparently.

Then there is Michael Signer of the Truman National Security Project, who offers something called “exemplarism.” What foreign conflict would he avoid? None. It would be even more important to act in Sudan, while exemplarism would, with an “emphatic yes,” have justified forcibly ousting Saddam Hussein. What’s the difference from neocon Wilsonianism? “Exemplarism would have required American policymakers to weigh more seriously unilateralism’s impact on our standing in the global community,” Signer writes. Wow, some limit on counterproductive warmongering.

More recently, Shadi Hamid argues in two essays in The American Prospect for “a foreign policy that puts democracy promotion at its center as the only way to secure our strategic interests, stay true to our ideals, and keep America safe.” He might as well be working at the American Enterprise Institute, writing for The Weekly Standard, and advising the Bush administration.

Well, no, he likes the UN. Hamid wants “to reclaim the democratic idealism of the neoconservative movement while wedding it to a more multilateral framework that recognizes the importance of alliances and international institutions.” In short, this is the multilateral rather than the incompetence dodge. Bomb other nations and kill other peoples in order to transform the international system, but do so only with an acceptable multilateral patina.

Although Hamid makes the welcome admission that “democracy cannot be imposed at gunpoint,” he apparently wants to point a gun along with offering aid and utilizing diplomatic pressure. He approvingly cites Signer and Wright, who have developed new theories to justify military intervention. And, writes Hamid, “we made a mistake in invading Iraq the way we did,” not “we made a mistake in invading Iraq.” Moreover, he argues, “the cause of Iraqi democracy remains a just one that deserves – rather, demands – the international community’s participation,” whatever that means.

Thankfully, some on the Left have taken up the challenge of developing a less interventionist liberal philosophy. Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic criticizes Hamid: “The idea of democratic failure – the idea that democracy in certain conditions cannot meet social expectations, leading to its collapse – never occurs to him, despite three and a half years of the Iraq War.”

Ackerman advocates emphasizing human rights rather than democracy, and continues to back U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the name of fighting genocide, which he views as warranting the use of military force. Although it’s hard to take the latter argument seriously, he does see Iraq more clearly. Ackerman explains:

"For all its tough-minded posturing, this [Hamid’s argument] is doughfaced liberalism at its worst: the implicit assumption that good intentions excuse actual, real-world consequences. To take the example of Iraq, the rise of democracy is directly correlative with marauding death squads. Among the most powerful figures in democratic Iraq is Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers serve in parliament, run ministries, and slaughter men in barber shops for insufficient beard growth."

Whatever this is, Ackerman realizes that it is not liberalism. He offers a telling challenge to the Left: “The Bush administration has taken both the United States and the world into catastrophe – fetishizing instability today in the messianic promise of a democratic tomorrow. Liberals of all people should not be buying into the same illusion while promising to do it better.”

Ackerman is moving in the right direction, though he still is not there. More promising is the attempt by Anatol Lieven on the Left to join with John Hulsman on the Right on behalf of a philosophy that they label “ethical realism.”

Building a foreign policy for a free and virtuous people is challenging. Even if everyone everywhere were free and virtuous, there would sometimes be sharp differences between peoples, nations, and cultures. With many unfree states, and many evil people, the difficulties grow.

But the starting point should be that the U.S. government’s primary responsibility is to the American people. That isn’t because the lives of Americans are more important than those of others. It is because the government represents Americans, is funded and defended by them, and is entrusted with the protection of their lives. Moreover, it is they who are directly responsible for their government’s actions.

Washington’s duty to act responsibly extends to those in uniform. They have joined freely, yes, but nevertheless their lives should not be forfeit absent a compelling interest involving their own political community. Policymakers should not take advantage of their patriotism for secondary or tertiary goals.

Thus, Washington should act to protect and promote U.S. interests. Such a perspective typically characterizes the “realist” school, but there are variants of “realism.” To focus on advancing American objectives does not mean doing everything for anything. It means recognizing that the U.S. has a range of objectives and a range of tools to advance those interests. The means used should be thoughtfully calibrated with the ends sought.

That is, for numerous minor goals – economic advancement, political advantage, modest security gain – diplomatic efforts and other small steps are appropriate. For more important questions, the U.S. can employ greater pressure: high-level government contacts, foreign aid payments, trade penalties, and more.

Where issues are more vital, Washington can, and sometimes must, do more, including economic sanctions, military threats, and war. But such cases are not common and such steps are not for the faint-hearted. Coercion should be reserved for truly serious and, in the case of military action, vital interests. That is, when America’s territorial integrity, basic liberties, constitutional system, and economic prosperity are at risk.

Obviously, the term "vital interest" is not self-defining, and advocates of intervention tend to treat almost anything, no matter how peripheral to America, as “vital” in order to justify proposals to bomb more countries and kill more people. However, it usually is evident when something is largely irrelevant or critically important. One can legitimately disagree over degree, not kind.

Although the U.S. should focus on protecting American interests, in doing so Washington should be constrained by moral principles. That is, the U.S. is not entitled to wage aggressive war to lower energy prices, prop up foreign dictators to improve the local investment climate, invade socialist nations to prevent nationalization of corporate assets, train authoritarian security forces to ensure the survival of a U.S.-friendly regime, and so on. Not every means is appropriate even for legitimate ends.

For the same reason, Washington should take into account the interests of other people around the globe. The U.S. government is accountable to the American polity but should be cognizant of larger principles of justice and morality.

Thus, genuine transnational environmental problems may warrant international cooperation (but not UN diktats) even if there is a cost to America. The U.S. should take a principled approach to free trade, even if some domestic industries suffer. Although most foreign aid can best be provided privately, Washington has a unique capacity, particularly the military, to respond quickly to humanitarian crises, such as the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Advancing democracy and human rights also is an important interest because the U.S. is part of a global human community. However, though a valid objective, it should not be the driving principle behind American foreign policy. That is, Washington should focus on advancing U.S. goals, while looking for opportunities to better the life of others around the world.

Thus, Washington should not stand against democratic movements merely because a new regime might be less friendly to American interests. At the same time, the U.S. should not recklessly explode existing political systems in an abstract devotion to democracy, especially where the result might be murder and mayhem, jihadist revolution, and/or frenetic anti-Americanism. Certainly Iraq has destroyed the illusion that military action can create a liberal democracy where the underlying civil society and culture have not yet developed.

The toughest humanitarian case is genocide, but even there aggressive war is hard to justify. First, one can rarely intervene easily and can almost never leave easily. Virtually all wars turn out unexpectedly and cost far more than originally projected. Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule usually applies: you break it and you own it. A consistent policy of “examplarism” or “progressive realism” or “democracy promotion” as advocated by today’s liberal thinkers would logically have the U.S. occupying Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka as well as Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq, and who knows where else.

Second, supposedly humanitarian intervention often has anti-humanitarian results. It is ironic that liberals hold up Kosovo as a success. After the victory of America and its allies, the ethnic Albanian majority drove out a quarter of a million Serbs, Jews, Roma, and non-Albanian Muslims. It was the second or third largest bout of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and it occurred on America’s and Europe’s watch.

Third, U.S. servicemen and women have enlisted to defend America, not patrol the globe. It is easy for armchair warriors to risk the lives of others, but American troops are morally responsible only to protect those inside their own political community.

Moreover, Iraq alone has greatly strained the American military. A policy of genuine humanitarian intervention, inserting U.S. forces in a half-dozen foreign hellholes, would wreck the military: how many 18-year-olds would enlist to garrison an expansive foreign empire, however benevolently justified?

Fourth, war is the gift that keeps on giving. An expansive interventionist policy and constant war require a large military, big budgets, government secrecy, restrictions on civil liberties, and the other attributes of the national security state. Promiscuous intervention, humanitarian or otherwise, is anathema to the maintenance of a republic based on limited government and individual liberty.

Then there is terrorism. Although there are many reasons why the U.S. is hated and feared around the world, only one factor explains why some of those who hate and fear America are willing to go to great efforts, including sacrificing their lives, to kill Americans. And that is the perception that the U.S. already is at war with them, that Washington is killing Muslims, backing Israel as it occupies and attacks Arab lands, and supporting compliant Muslim overlords in Arab nations.

To recognize that Islamic jihadists have grievances neither endorses their perspective nor justifies their murderous activities. But it explains why they do what they do. The problem of terrorism is not Disneyland or the Bill of Rights or MTV. The problem is America’s interventionist foreign policy, which creates enemies at every turn. The consequences will be the same for liberal intervention as for neoconservative intervention.

The Bush administration was supposed to return “the adults” to run U.S. foreign policy. Alas, the result has been catastrophic. Instead of a policy of mature restraint, the Bush team has leavened arrogance with ignorance and incompetence. But the principal problem is principle: using war and the threat of war to advance peripheral and sometimes frivolous objectives, usually objectives which cannot be achieved through coercion. Liberals must do more than rename neoconservative policies. They must develop a foreign policy that advocates doing less as well as doing it better.