They Never Learn
Posted by Michael Cohen
In an ongoing effort to prove that the US foreign policy pundit class is seemingly incapable of engaging in deductive reasoning, check out Roger Cohen's piece on Monday trumpeting US intervention in Libya.
The intervention has been done right — with the legality of strong United Nations backing, full support from America’s European allies, and quiet arming of the rebels. The Libyan people have been freed from a crazed tyranny. Unlike in Iraq, burdens were shared: America flew the intelligence missions and did the refueling while the French, British, Dutch and others did most of the bombing. Iraq was the wrong prism through which to look at Libya. I’m glad I resisted that temptation. Another cycle has begun.
In the end, I think interventionism is inextricable from the American idea. If the United States retreats into isolationism, it ceases to be itself — a nation dedicated, however much it falls short, to a universalist ideal of freedom.
There are no fixed doctrinal answers — a successful Libyan intervention does not mean one in Syria is feasible — but the idea that the West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th.
First things first, it is simply not possible to describe the Libyan intervention as successful . . until the war, you know, actually ends. I mean obviously it is possible; it's just really foolish. We are still a very long way from being able to make the judgment that US intervention in Libya furthered US national security interests.
Second, Cohen is definitely right that interventionism is inextricable from the American idea; but if he wants to know why he might do well to consider the deeper meaning of his argument that "West must at times be prepared to fight for its values against barbarism is the best hope for a 21st century less cruel than the 20th." It's this sort of exceptionalist mindset; this notion that the US has a responsibility - and the capabilities - to fight for its values; that is precisely the reason why America IS an interventionist nation. Cohen seems to miss completely the connection between American exceptionalist myth-making and failed US military interventions.
Don't believe me? Check out what Cohen says earlier in the piece. In describing Peter Beinart's argument that US military intervention operates in various cycles he makes the following statement:
Beinart describes how . . . he in time became sickened by the Vietnam analogy with its recurring prescription for inaction. Shaped by Bosnia, he backed the Iraq war. The pendulum had swung. Vietnam-induced excess of caution had given way to Bosnian-induced hubris.
I, too, fell under its influence. Mea culpa. Whatever the monstrosity of Saddam, and whatever the great benefit to the world of his disappearance, the war as it was justified and fought — under false pretenses, without many of America’s closest allies, in ignorance and incompetence — was a stain on America’s conscience.
Here's the beauty of this: Cohen recognizes that what led the US into Iraq was a certain "hubris" that came from intervention in the Balkans. (This by the way is almost certainly true and helps explain why so many liberal hawks supported the ill-fated Iraq intervention.) And yet he's completely blind to the fact that he is engaging in the exact same sort of hubris regarding Libya. Cohen seems to understand the connection between humanitarian intervention in the Balkans and Iraq, but is simply incapable of understanding how his own triumphalism on Libya might presage the next US military intervention.
To be sure it's not remarkable when foreign policy pundits fail to recognize or acknowledge the inconsistency in their views re: national security policy or US military interventions. it's rather amazing when they fail to recognize it in one 800 word op-ed.