Hawks Home to Roost

February 4, 2009 Region: Americas

Hawks Home to Roost

The liberal interventionists are back, and will have a pretty loud voice on Obama’s staff. Will he listen to them?


Do Obama's foreign-policy appointments jibe with his declaration that America should set an example for the rest of the world rather than seeking to bludgeon it into submission? Or do they, in fact, suggest that Obama's administration will witness a new spasm of liberal interventionism?

Judging by his appointments, Obama might well seem bent on returning to liberal intervention. The "smart power" touted by Hillary Clinton might seem to be a smokescreen for expanding American democracy abroad, wherever and whenever possible. Clinton herself pushed for intervention in the Balkans-partly at the behest of her close friend Madeleine Albright-supported the Iraq War and backed a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Nor is Richard Holbrooke, who is special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, a shrinking violet. Holbrooke earned prominence during the Clinton administration as a hard-nosed negotiator who didn't hesitate to threaten bombing to cajole the Serbs into reaching an agreement with the Bosnians. Other liberal hawks include Michael McFaul and Samantha Power.


McFaul has been appointed senior director for Russian affairs at the National Security Council. In this capacity, he will have a significant voice in the extent to which the Obama administration seeks to construct a détente with Moscow or to isolate it. In this regard, McFaul's testimony on September 9, 2008 before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs is of some interest.

For one thing, McFaul made it clear that he believed that it was, at bottom, insignificant who had fired the first shots in the Russian-Georgia conflict. According to McFaul,

But we should not get, in some way, distracted from the fact that Russia has a grand strategy that it has been pursuing, not just in August but for several years, in the region. And most certainly I think Mr. Saakashvili made mistakes, but let's also not make the mistake of getting in a tit-for-tat of who fired when first, because it's a bigger enterprise and a bigger strategy.

This is unpersuasive. It is not simply a matter of a few pardonable "mistakes," but a fundamental error in judgment by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. He recklessly went to war against Russia.

McFaul also stated, "we have to rebuild Russia. You've spent a lot of time on that. But Mr. Chairman, I really support and strongly endorse your idea that a big chunk of that needs to be democracy assistance." But why is it incumbent upon the United States to "rebuild" Russia? Doesn't it have enough economic problems of its own? McFaul has always been careful to qualify his statements as falling between demonizing or embracing Russia, but his velleities seem clear enough. But the temptation to create a more lasting relationship with Russia shouldn't be underestimated. Obama could score big by easing tensions, trading Russian cooperation on Iran for jettisoning the proposed missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Then there is the case of Samantha Power. In her Pulitzer-Prize winning A Problem From Hell, she upbraided America for failing to prevent genocides from occurring during the twentieth century (though she mostly ignores communist ones). For Power, moralpolitik is realpolitik. In Time in 2007, she stated that as human-rights abuses occur in Burma and Darfur " a coalition of the concerned must insist that what is manifestly true of the economy is also true of human rights: in this age, there is no such thing as a purely ‘internal matter.'" Shades of George W. Bush!

Intervention by liberals, as Michael Desch reminds us in the new National Interest, is an old tradition, one dating back to Woodrow Wilson, who was himself deeply influenced by the example of the British Empire. Wilson followed in the path of the Christian moralist William Gladstone, who believed that England's mission was to save the oppressed. This sort of romantic imperialism has come into bad odor with the Iraq War, but it was the liberal interventionists who originally made common cause with the neoconservatives to liberate the country.

Those impulses linger on. Where realists emphasize that the internal nature of a country does not necessarily influence its foreign-policy decisions-a democratic Iran is as likely to seek nuclear weapons as an authoritarian one-liberal interventionists place much credence in expanding democratic norms, by force if necessary. This was the dream that Bush indulged in for much of his presidency. Whether Obama will follow suit is an open question. His own cautious instincts and the crushing economic problems confronting him might well prompt him to adhere to the sentiments he expressed in his inaugural address. But to heed them, he may have to look askance at the advice of some of his own advisers.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.