This all left the impression that the liberal interventionists have dramatically scaled back their goals, even though the presence of their loyalists in high places—the National Security Council, the mission to the UN, the right hand of George Clooney, and so forth—suggests they should have more power than ever. So why do the loyalists feel they must tell reporters that they are not “bomb throwers”?
The answer may be simple: Iraq. The war left Americans with little appetite for new adventures and little surplus national strength to launch them. It also spread skepticism of the notion that the United States can play a transformative role in ancient conflicts. President Obama, both a longstanding opponent of the Iraq war and a man with an agenda that is more domestic than foreign, seems to appreciate this, and has not given subordinates with liberal-interventionist leanings much running room. In a nation weakened both militarily and fiscally, new initiatives must be either funded by debt or by cuts elsewhere; there is no Clinton-era budget surplus. The argument for involvement in conflicts of little direct import to U.S. interests is that much harder.
Further, new constraints have arisen abroad that did not exist in liberal interventionism’s 1990s heyday. Russia is no longer a basket case. China’s economy has grown dramatically. The new global balance of power is still unclear, but there is no longer a widespread feeling—as there was just after the Cold War—that America’s example will determine new international norms. The unipolar moment that kept the costs of humanitarian interventions low and thus reduced the urgency of connecting them directly to national interests has ended, and does not appear likely to return in our lifetimes.
The liberal interventionists are thus in a tough spot. The domestic and international conditions that allowed their rise have changed. And their increasing reluctance to publicly state the tenets of their faith suggests that they know this. All they can do is reminisce about the glory days when they fixed the Balkans and bide their time, spouting conventional wisdom to stay relevant. The strange thing is that neoconservatives—also chastened by policy failures and lessened appetite for preemptive war—haven’t had to do the same.
John Allen Gay is an assistant editor at The National Interest. His book (co-authored with Geoffrey Kemp) War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in early 2013.