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April 20, 2011

The Latest Take-Down of Liberal Interventionists
Posted by David Shorr

Clooney prendergast power Here is the most ironic passage in Jacob Heilbrunn's National Interest article on Samantha Power as the embodiment of a foreign policy paradigm shift:

Power has a penchant for dramatizing history through people rather than considering broader forces. She states in the acknowledgments to “A Problem From Hell” that a friend from Hollywood advised her to create a drama by telling the story through characters. And that is what she did.

Why ironic? Because he's written an article on Samantha Power as the embodiment of a foreign policy paradigm shift. Actually, I don't want to be too harsh about the Heilbrunn piece, especially since it compares quite favorably to the meandering paranoid screed that Stanley Kurtz gave us on the same subject. In keeping with Heilbrunn's earlier critique of such hyperpartisan intemperance on the far right, he offers a sober examination of the interventionist approach.

That said, though, I have to take issue with two of Heilbrunn's main indictments against interventionism. The first concernts the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Heilbrunn recounts his own exchange with Power at a conference the following year. He pressed her on the seeming contradiction of decrying inaction in the face of tyrannic butchery, yet laying off Saddam:

Her response? The Bush administration was not acting multilaterally and Saddam’s actions, at that point, didn’t meet the definition of genocide even if they had in the past. It is an answer that I never found fully satisfactory, at least for someone who was otherwise championing the cause of stopping mad and bad dictators around the world.

While Heilbrunn may be unpersuaded, the distinction between what Saddam was doing in the early-2000s versus his merciless crackdowns in the late-1980s and early-1990s is hardly a fine point. Every so often when this question resurfaces, I feel compelled to dust off Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth's authoritative essay on the issue, "War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention."  In a nutshell, the point of intervention is not to stop the dictators, but to stop what they're doing or are about to do. As Roth put it, resort to force "should be taken only to stop current or imminent slaughter, not to punish past abuse." In other words, what Heilbrunn tags as hypocrisy is actually a pretty stringent criterion for military action.

Which brings me to my second objection. Since Heilbrunn elides the crucial point above, this leads to his further misreading of foreign policy liberals' views on democracy promotion. Portraying liberal interventionism as the orthodoxy of a new elite, here's how he summarizes our dogma:

This elite is united by a shared belief that American foreign policy must be fundamentally transformed from an obsession with national interests into a broader agenda that seeks justice for women and minorities, and promotes democracy whenever and wherever it can—at the point of a cruise missile if necessary.

As to our supposedly itchy cruise missile trigger finger, well op. cit. Ken Roth. But let me sketch a larger picture and resist the idea, speaking at least for one liberal, that the worldview focuses on social justice at the expense of other concerns.

It's fair to say that many emerging liberal foreign policy leading lights are firmly internationalist -- with the aim of helping spread peace and economic and political empowerment as widely as possible. For some of us (especially yours truly) the main idea is to strengthen the rules-based international order, and in that light, the fight with Qaddafi is about reinforcing a norm against leaders making war on their own people. Yet we're hardly blind to the trade-offs among the goals of national security, economic growth, and the spread democracy. While the United States has important concerns about repression in China, the most urgent agenda is clearly balanced economic growth. Lest anyone think that geostrategic competition has been shunted aside, I'd only mention the Obama Administration's backing of Southeast Asian fears over China's maritime claims. And for all the criticism of President Obama's low-key response to the 2009 people-power protests in Iran, the reason was precisely due to worries about undercutting our efforts on Iran's nuclear program.

By applying limited force on behalf of limited interests, interventionists have no doubt taken a substantial risk. We indeed make some of these calculations based on a broader concept of enlightened self-interest and global leadership. But we are calculating nonetheless -- not, as some might believe, treating the other nations of the world as a social engineering project.


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