A Troubling Interventionist Consensus
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Ivo Daalder, a former foreign policy advisor to Howard Dean, and Robert Kagan, a staunch neoconservative, came together to insist approvingly that future administrations will be every bit as prone to military intervention as the current one. The essay offers a useful corrective for those who believe American hubris is a product only of the Bush Administration and will be remedied if the Democrats take over in 2009.
Daalder and Kagan celebrate this interventionist consensus. We do not.
For all the talk of the breakdown of the foreign policy consensus, what Daalder and Kagan's recent collaboration reveals is how solid that consensus really is. But what may be presented within the Beltway as a welcome return to the era of bipartisan consensus is in reality an unedifying-and frankly scary-spectacle of liberals and conservatives trying to outbid each other as to who can outline a more bellicose stance for the United States.
Presidential hopefuls and policy wonks debate amongst themselves how to improve America's effectiveness as world policeman and decry any challenge to that role, as if they believed it to be somehow inscribed in our country's DNA. We believe that the United States should adopt a fundamentally different approach.
This does not mean that the United States should wall itself in from the outside world or that Americans will balk when force really is required. The issue is not legitimacy so much as good judgment. What the public has come to perceive, however, is the fundamental moral and practical difference between wars of necessity, which it continues to support, and wars of choice, which both major parties and their foreign policy apparatuses persist in glorifying.
Iraq should have taught us that these wars of choice, even those pursued with the best of intentions, are likely to encounter a host of unintended consequences that should call into question the wisdom of military intervention as an effective way of pursuing America's foreign policy objectives. Robert Kagan may well be right to argue that such interventionism is an old American tradition. But some traditions age better than others, and this one has long outlived its usefulness.
Kagan and Daalder set the bar very low for when military interventions should be unleashed. In most cases, a massive commitment of military force is the wrong tool for dealing with the challenges they outline-terrorism, WMD and human rights crimes. Terrorism is best combated not by large-scale military intervention, but rather by targeted operations, usually conducted in cooperation with local officials. As for weapons proliferation, two of the three members of the "Axis of Evil" have ramped up their WMD programs, in part to deter the very types of military intervention that Daalder and Kagan advocate. As for halting gross abuses of human rights, the public has a right to ask whether military intervention is best suited to this task. An estimated four million displaced persons in Iraq are fleeing the killings and sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the U.S. intervention and occupation.
Kagan and Daalder loosely stipulate that a "clear strategy of success" is required to sustain public support, but they never flesh out what that entails. History teaches that successful nation-building operations require committing huge numbers of troops to policing functions in a foreign country for decades, but advocates of past military interventions have systematically mischaracterized the likely costs and risks. Daalder and Kagan are continuing to evade these difficult but crucial questions.
Finally, when they argue that intervention might be required to defend against "traditional forms of aggression," it is legitimate to ask, "Aggression against whom?" It is worth remembering that the last time that a foreign army set foot on American soil was the War of 1812. Surely Kagan and Daalder aren't arguing that every one of the eight occasions in which the United States used force between 1989 and 2001 dealt with direct threats to American security? The authors speak of intervention on behalf of "others whom we are obliged to protect." But again, obliged by what? By whom? Only by eliding the fundamental differences between security and humanitarian imperatives and by insisting that, in effect, the United States will only secure the peace through endless wars of altruism, can reckless prescriptions for the use of U.S. power be made defensible.
There is also the issue of legitimacy. The authors assure us that U.S. military interventions will be seen as legitimate, so long as they are endorsed by "the world's democracies." But that wouldn't seem to include India, for example, which staunchly opposed the intervention in Kosovo in 1999. Are they speaking, therefore, only of the West European democracies, with perhaps Japan thrown in for good measure?
Kagan's latest book crows that we are a "dangerous nation"-but when we act on the assumption that we are uniquely responsible for protecting and defending any and all who come under attack, the dangers have often been visited on the people of the United States. Both Daalder and Kagan recognize this; they seem not to be troubled by
it. In early 2003, Daalder and James Lindsay admitted that U.S. "power makes it a magnet for terrorism." Kagan was even blunter in his book Of Paradise and Power, writing that "it is precisely America's great power and its willingness to assume the responsibility for protecting other nations that make it the primary target, and often the only target. Most Europeans have been understandably content that it should remain so." That may be, but it is not understandable why Americans would desire such an arrangement.