Not All Interventions Are the Same

Quit it with the comparisons between Iraq and Libya. There's a world of difference between neoconservatism and liberal internationalism.


"Liberal interventionists are just ‘kinder, gentler’ neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionists on steroids," political scientist and blogger Stephen M. Walt, commenting on calls for U.S. involvement in Libya, asserted recently on this website, echoing a false equivalence that has sadly become a common conceit among foreign-policy thinkers. It was inevitable that pundits would compare the invasion of Iraq (an idea promoted by neoconservatives) to the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya (an idea promoted by liberal interventionists). Yet obscuring the difference between these two schools of thought threatens more than the vanity of a group of academics: It places the coherence and stability of the United States’ long-term grand strategy in jeopardy.

While Walt, a self-identified "realist," develops a more sophisticated version of this false equivalence, there are, of course, obvious fundamental differences between neocons’ triumphal nationalism and liberals’ conviction that America can best advance its interests and values in cooperation with other democracies. Walt concedes the distinction, only to accuse liberals of being more cunning than neocons about concealing their will to power: "[T]he former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance."

In Walt’s estimation, intervention is intervention, no matter the avowed motives behind a given mission, or the various circumstances that can justify the use of force. Because George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each initiated a military action, it follows for Walt that neocons and "liberal interventionists" see the world much the same way.

This is bunk. Traumatized by U.S. blunders in Iraq, realists now misapply that war’s lessons to Obama’s decision to join international efforts to protect Libyans from the wrath of a mad dictator. While the president is being attacked by everyone from John Boehner to Dennis Kucinich, it is critical to set the record straight.

Because Walt uses the terms "liberal interventionist" or "liberal hawk" pejoratively, I’ll refer to "progressive internationalism" instead. Progressive internationalists aren’t hard-core lefties, but rather progressives in the original sense of the word: pragmatic liberals. We are ideological moderates rooted in classically liberal understandings of individual liberty and equality of opportunity — at home and abroad — who believe the world’s problems should be solved through tough-minded diplomacy and negotiation, whenever possible.

Further, the terms "hawk" or "interventionist" imply an overreliance on the military. Walt accuses both neocons and progressive internationalists of looking at every problem as a nail to be pounded by the hammer of U.S. military might. While progressive internationalists certainly support a strong military as the bedrock of America’s foreign policy, they also know that international affairs in the 21st century seldom present black-and-white binary decisions of the sort that Bush mistakenly sought to resolve with a good whack.

This no doubt brings to mind Iraq, and I cannot go further without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Yes, many progressive internationalists did support the decision to invade Iraq. (In 2003, I was a civilian counterterrorism analyst at the Department of Defense and did not take a public position on that action.) In hindsight, I believe constructive critique of my colleagues is warranted and they have learned much in Iraq’s wake. The only point I offer in their defense is this: It’s just hard to imagine that an Al Gore administration — which would have been stocked full of progressive internationalists — would have ginned up that ideological charge to war.

Progressive internationalists recognize that U.S. foreign policy is now a holistic enterprise that must first summon all sources of national power to deal with what goes on within states as well as between them — direct and multilateral diplomacy, development aid to build infrastructure and civil society, trade to promote growth, intelligence collection, and law enforcement, to name a few — and only then turn to force as the final guarantor of peace and stability.

Neocons, however, disdain multilateral diplomacy and overestimate the efficacy of military force. Their lopsided preoccupation with "hard power" creates an imposing facade of strength, but in fact saps the economic, political, and moral sources of American influence. By overspending on the military and allowing the other levers of American power to atrophy, neocons misallocate precious U.S. national resources in two ways — leaving the United States with too little of the "smart power" capacities desperately needed in war zones like Afghanistan and an overabundance of "hard power" capacities it will never use. The trick is to carefully cultivate both, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have championed since Obama took power.

Walt allows some daylight between neocons and progressive internationalists in their willingness to defer to international institutions, but he again misses the true difference. He rightly characterizes neocons’ disdain for multilateral talking shops (see: John Bolton) but wrongly suggests progressives are insincere in embedding U.S. power in international institutions. The fact is that we do indeed believe that international institutions make the world a safer place for the United States and other democracies by entrenching liberal norms around the globe. Can it really be an accident that America is embroiled in conflicts across the Middle East, a region whose countries are least touched by liberal democracy and adherence to internationalism?

Progressive internationalists believe the United States should be the unquestioned vanguard of democratic values, and that American leadership is strengthened when granted a sense of legitimacy that attracts others to our cause. Without a doubt, unilateral application of force in self-defense is a legitimate exercise of power, but legitimacy can evaporate under two circumstances: when America’s actions betray its core values or when America acts offensively without an international mandate and the backing of close allies. My organization, the Progressive Policy Institute, in a 2003 manifesto on progressive internationalism, argued that "the way to keep America safe and strong is not to impose our will on others or pursue a narrow, selfish nationalism that betrays our best values, but to lead the world toward political and economic freedom."

Neocons, by contrast, pursue security interests at the expense of American values and damage U.S. legitimacy while doing so. That was George W. Bush: He betrayed American values and alienated core international partners by torturing prisoners, denying them any sense of due process, and falsifying a threat to justify an effectively unilateral invasion of a Muslim country. He strove for the mere appearance of legitimacy, forging ham-fisted, bribed coalitions of the somewhat willing.

The Obama administration’s actions in Libya are surely legitimate. The president chose to intervene after securing active support from the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, not to mention the U.N. Security Council. The international community’s near-unanimity is an acknowledgement of the "responsibility to protect" (or R2P), a U.N. norm that obliges the international community to defend innocents in the face of humanitarian atrocities.

Realists like Walt disdain R2P because shielding other human beings from mass murder does not fit within the realists’ narrow band of core American interests. To them, America’s blood, attention, and treasure are not worth spending unless there is an immediate quid pro quo payoff in terms of national security. Ironically for Walt, realists are closer to neoconservatives on this score: Bush and Cheney meshed realism with neoconservatism when they sold the Iraq invasion as a quick and painless exercise of overwhelming American power that would render an immediate payoff in the form of a decapitated threat and an instantaneous "beacon of democracy" in the Middle East.

Progressive internationalists, like neocons, would define R2P as a core national interest, and we would both advocate strongly for the protection of innocent civilians who yearn to express their individual freedoms. We believe protecting civilians from murderous dictators creates a more stable international community and a safer America while promoting universal human rights and values. But though our ends are similar, our thresholds for intervention, our military methodology, and our justifications for action could not be more different. Neoconservatives’ disdain for smart power and realists’ shortsighted interpretation of core U.S. interests are poor uses of national resources. In contrast, progressive internationalists seek to use all of America’s might to shape an international environment more congenial to the country’s true interests and democratic values.

These differences are hardly trivial. Conflating them, as Walt does, is a transparent attempt to reframe U.S. foreign-policy debates around a choice between intervention and nonintervention. But time and again, the American people stubbornly refuse to make those choices in a moral vacuum. This leaves the United States with a messy, imprecise, unscientific approach to international politics, just like its approach to domestic politics. Yes, this pragmatic progressive tradition has sometimes proved chaotic in practice, but Obama should be commended, not chastised, for aligning American interests and values, seeking international legitimacy, and looking to shape the world as both more democratic and ultimately safer.

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