HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION—the conviction that American presidents must act, preemptively if necessary, to avert the massacre of innocents abroad—is steadily acquiring a new prominence in the Obama administration. For America’s foreign-policy elite, it is a precept that provides a way to expiate the sins of the past, either bellicose action (Vietnam) or complacent inaction (Rwanda). It not only holds out the expectation of protecting endangered civilians but also the promise of acting multilaterally to uphold international laws.
Yet the consequences of such intervention have rarely been more vexing. As the world’s leading military power—it devotes more to defense than the next ten biggest-spending countries combined—America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict, often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail, even as Washington becomes progressively more enmeshed in local disputes. In its quixotic quest to create a global and irenic order by force, it is flouting Shakespeare’s admonition that it is best to “fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels.”
This is particularly so in the Middle East, where the Obama administration and, to a lesser degree, Europe face nothing less than a potential cataclysm of engagements, until the entire region is in tumult. The result is a self-reinforcing doctrine of permanent revolution. In creating, or abetting, chaotic conditions, it becomes necessary to intervene again and again, all in the name of averting further chaos.
These incursions embrace the idea—some more, some less—of humanitarian intervention. The conceit is that when America intervenes, it is not doing so on the basis of sordid national interests but, rather, on the grounds of self-evidently virtuous human rights or, in its most extreme case, to prevent genocide. This development—to call it a mere trend would be to trivialize its true import—has been a long time in the making.
Indeed, in an essay published in The National Interest (now reprinted in The Neoconservative Persuasion), Irving Kristol contended that human rights had become a kind of unquestioned ideology. Kristol traced its origins back to the debates between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli over intervention in the Balkans, when the Turks massacred some twelve thousand Bulgarians. The realist Disraeli, who sought to check Russia, was unmoved by Gladstone’s humanitarian appeals to endorse self-determination for the Balkan states. But perhaps an even earlier instance came in the lead-up to British involvement in the Crimean War, revolving as it did around the “Eastern Question”; the Turks and Russians could fight it out for influence in the Mediterranean—and the French could get in their squabble over Catholics, without much bother to the Brits. As liberal politician John Bright argued on March 31, 1854, in his great speech to Parliament against squandering power in foolish adventures abroad:
How are the interests of England involved in this question? . . . it is not on a question of sympathy that I dare involve this country, or any country, in a war which must cost an incalculable amount of treasure and of blood. It is not my duty to make this country the knight-errant of the human race, and to take upon herself the protection of the thousand millions of human beings who have been permitted by the Creator of all things to people this planet.
Transforming the United States into a knight-errant, though, is at the heart of liberal internationalism. As in nineteenth-century Britain, so in modern America; just as with Gladstone, the current manifestation of this impulse first became apparent in the Balkans, when NATO established a no-fly zone there, during the bombings of 1995. And so a new generation of liberal hawks emerged, overcoming the discomfiture associated with the use of force in Vietnam, seeing themselves as divine intervenors for mistreated ethnic minorities abroad. It amounted, in some ways, to a multicultural foreign policy, or at least one that sees America as key to creating a new democratic order. Madeleine Albright, for example, announced during the Clinton administration, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further than other countries into the future.”
The hubris of ascribing a unique percipience to the United States was hardly confined to Albright. It also amounted a fortiori to the credo of the George W. Bush administration, which witnessed a fusion of neoconservatives and liberal hawks. “Damn the doves,” Christopher Hitchens announced in the conservative London Spectator in 2001 as the United States readied to topple Saddam Hussein. While in Dissent, Michael Walzer declared that the Left was being “stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate” and should accept America’s imperial status, modeling any opposition to the Iraq invasion on the Little Englanders during the Boer War.
Then, as the insurgency developed, the alliance melted away. A notable defector was Peter Beinart, who first wrote a book calling for a nationalistic Democratic Party, then issued a second one taking it all back.