Barack Obama may be president because he criticized the invasion of Iraq. From that, leftish Democrats assumed he was one of them, opposed to military intervention. But instead he proved to be a cautious liberal hawk ready to use military force and expand the national-security state. He accepted George W. Bush’s withdrawal schedule from Iraq, twice increased force levels in Afghanistan, and initiated war against Libya.
Nevertheless, there have been no new grand crusades or grandiose pronouncements. He declined to take up Madeleine Albright’s famous challenge to Colin Powell to more often use America’s “superb military.” For instance, despite applying significant economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, President Obama has resisted insistent demands for air strikes. Even more pronounced was his reluctance to intervene in Syria, which illustrates the tension between his innate prudence and his liberal sensibility.
His previous national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, seemed to share this perspective. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was no shrinking violet when it came to military action, she also demonstrated little enthusiasm for joining the Syrian killfest. But the president has been changing his foreign-policy team. New secretary of state hire John Kerry appears more inclined to activism. Even more dramatic was his choice to replace Donilon with UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who this week begins her new position in the West Wing.
No doubt, her loyalty to the president was an important factor in her appointment. Moreover, President Obama is simultaneously rewarding her and sticking it to Republican critics who effectively blocked her ascension to secretary of state.
Nevertheless, her views are important. Both she and Barack Obama are proponents of multilateral institutions and processes as well as abundant foreign aid. Both back sanctions against Iran and North Korea. She also has repeated the administration mantra about keeping “all options on the table, including the military option,” regarding Iran.
However, elsewhere her approach toward military intervention appears to differ from that of the president. In particular, both she and Samantha Power, chosen to replace Rice as UN ambassador, are strong advocates of humanitarian intervention. It’s essentially the antithesis of prudent realism: Washington should intervene when it is not in America’s interest to do so. Doing so both is good and makes one feel good.
Humanitarian intervention invites cynicism. First, what criteria govern? Odious regimes in North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Bahrain and Central Asia have murdered, tortured, jailed and oppressed with wild abandon. Victims-turned-victors in Kosovo and Rwanda have mimicked the behavior of their persecutors. Yet the champions of humanitarian intervention typically have been absent.
Second, humanitarian intervention rarely lives up to its sales pitch. As Paul Pillar has noted, trying to cram current battles into historical templates
ignores or discounts the aforementioned complexities about mixtures of good and bad and the trade-offs among different interests. It overstates the similarity between the historical episode that has had the searing effect and whatever is the policy problem of today. Swearing in advance to take a particular side in a future policy debate without knowing the details of the problem that will be debated is a very bad way to make policy. To the extent that emotion and guilt over some past horror come into play, this gets even farther away from careful examination of policy options and makes bad policy even more likely.
Third, intervention advocates almost never help prosecute the wars they advocate. Promiscuous crusaders like former vice president Richard Cheney always seem to have “other priorities” as they plot when and where everyone else should fight and die. Moral satisfaction comes easily while treating military personnel like gambit pawns in a global chess game.
Indeed, self-professed humanitarians seem to demonstrate surprisingly little concern for those stuck doing the dirty work. As Christopher Orlet noted in The American Spectator : “What distinguishes such statesmen is their ability to care. [But not] about the Missouri and Tennessee and Alabama sons and daughters who will lose limbs or lives in some Arabian desert for the sake of a people who hate us.”
Nevertheless, Rice’s views appear genuine. And the Rwanda genocide helped form her philosophy. She worked on Africa for the Clinton administration and was accused of ignoring the mass killing. Afterwards Rice declared to journalist Power that in the future she would “come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” (Ironically, she became friends with Rwanda’s postgenocide president, Paul Kagame, and helped protect his brutish authoritarian regime from international sanction.)
After leaving government Rice suggested sending “2,000 or so U.S. forces, in formed units, with some peace-enforcement or fighting capability, if necessary” to Liberia. Later she advocated “bombing Sudanese targets—air fields, air assets, command and control installations.” She added: “We could also contemplate other military options if those don’t succeed, even those as robust as considering blockading Port Sudan, through which Sudan’s oil assets flow.” Her objective was to insert UN peacekeepers, supported by NATO, into Darfur “to prevent the government of Sudan from continuing its second wave of genocide and killing massive numbers of civilians.” And in her view, UN approval would have been useful but not necessary.
Most recently Rice pushed for intervention in Libya, a conflict in which the United States had no discernible stake. She told reporters: “We are interested in a broad range of actions that will effectively protect civilians and increase the pressure on the Qaddafi regime to halt the killing.” (The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn pointed to Samantha Power’s important role as well.) Of course, the conflict did not turn out particularly well for America or Rice, given the chaotic aftermath in Libya, including the Benghazi attack, and the precedent of ousting Qaddafi after he negotiated away his nuclear program.
Although Rice said little on Syria, the chatter is that both she and Secretary Kerry pushed for a more active stance, leading to the decision to arm the insurgents. And if this policy fails to end the conflict—as seems almost certain—it would not surprise if she pushed for more vigorous involvement, including possibly military action. Toss in Samantha Power and the president may be facing his own Greek Chorus demanding war.
For good reason the Washington Post headlined an article about the choice of Rice and Power: “Obama Signals New Approach on National Security.” One of the chief ivory-tower interventionists, columnist Michael Gerson, explained: “apart from Syria, it is likely to make a large difference,” since “Even a modest push on humanitarian issues can put bureaucracies and coalitions into motion.” As for Syria, argued Gerson: “it is absurd to think that personnel is irrelevant to policy. Large, immediate shifts are not likely. But moving forward, each incremental choice will be influenced by a team of advisers—including Rice, Power and Secretary of State John Kerry.”
This is bad news, since Syria is a textbook example of a war America should avoid: U.S. security is not at risk, other nations have more at stake, many “good” guys in fact are bad, Washington would own the bloody aftermath, and there would be no easy exit.
And there will be many more possible wars to fight in the future. Whereas American officials once sought to avoid unnecessary military conflicts, today Washington is filled with pundits, legislators, diplomats and presidential aides demanding to loose the dogs of war.
Still, nothing is certain. Presidential press secretary Jay Carney insisted “ultimately it is the president of the United States who . . . makes the decision.”
True. And when he does he should reflect on his predecessor, whose administration is remembered primarily for its disastrous and unnecessary war. With Americans staunchly opposed to another Mideast military misadventure, turning his foreign policy over to Susan Rice and like-minded allies could wreck the Obama presidency.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire .