Jacob Heilbrunn

America's Foreign Policy Valkyries: Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice

Contrary to popular opinion, the Iraq War was not simply the product of neoconservatives. It was also championed by liberal hawks. An alliance between the two factions propelled the debate forward. It was forged in Bosnia, welded together by Iraq, then seemed to fall apart as the liberal hawks went AWOL. Now the liberal hawks have returned with a vengeance.

The Washington Post reports that a troika of female advisers--Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power--are, by and large, responsible for persuading President Obama-- against the advice of Robert Gates and other members of the military establishment--that bombing Libya is a good idea. Power has condemned American foreign policy for failing to intervene sufficiently to avert genocidal wars, particularly in Bosnia and Rwanda. Bill Clinton has himself said that his biggest regret was not intervening in Rwanda to stop the carnage.

Now these Valkyries of foreign affairs want to come riding in on a new humanitarian mission to rescue the Libyan people from their oppressor. But will it end happily? Or will it be a new chapter in the twilight of the Gods--another blow to mighty America's reputation?

So far, Obama has been equivocal about what the bombing is actually supposed to intend. The administration denies that it must dislodge Col. Qaddafi from power. But of course it must. Now that it has launched a bombing campaign, it would be preposterous to leave him in power. He would be more powerful than ever.

Andrew J. Bacevich has it right. He states in the Washington Post that mission creep is inevitable: "I would expect that sort of partial success would lead to calls for expanding operations in order to achieve regime change." Regime change. So Obama--and America--are back to the Bush doctrine.

In truth the Bush doctrine was simply a hypertrophied version of Wilsonian internationalism. Woodrow Wilson invaded more countries than any other president. He waged wars against war. Washington has never stopped doing it.

The stakes are high for Obama. Higher than he would like. If he succeeds in creating some semblance of democracy in Libya, he'll go down as Mr. Big. If not, he risks becoming George W. Bush redux--entangled in a third war. Obama has tried to follow a cautious course, using the Arab League as a fig-leaf. The French and British are supposedly in the lead.

But ultimately, it is only America that can make any action stick. Now that it's in, it must go all the way. Administration officials keep saying they're trying not to kill the Col. Well, why not? The administration has become expert at saying what the Libyan intervention is not about. But they do not tell us what it is about. On that matter they take refuge in delphic pronouncements.

But if the venture goes south, Obama knows squarely where to stick the blame. Clinton, Power, and Rice have taken their biggest gamble. The liberal hawks and neocons may well have prepared a new foreign policy disaster should Libya devolve into tribal warfare. And so this is a crucible for the idea of humanitarian intervention. If it fails, the liberal hawks will return to ignominy. At least until the next crisis erupts.