Opinion

The liberal interventionist quagmire

Summary

Humanitarian intervention, far from being “devoid of raw national interest” as its proponents and even opponents have conjectured, has actually been quite dependent on it.

In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs (January/February 2021), Samantha Power writes on how Joe Biden will be an improvement over Donald Trump. It’s a laudatory piece, and it faults Trump for his incompetent handling of foreign relations. The world, she tells us, no longer looks up to US leadership; the world no longer identifies the US as capable of solving “big problems.” The task of the new president must be to restore confidence in Washington while troubleshooting Trump’s bungled coronavirus response, implementing policies which provide benefits at home and meet critical needs overseas.

Words matter. In Power’s essay three words stand out: values, interests, leadership. To be more specific, the “values of an open society”, the advancement of “US interests abroad”, and the restoration of “American leadership.” Coming as they do from one of the most vocal exponents of liberal interventionism, these phrases mean something. They are the key not just to what Power is trying to put across, but also to what the Biden presidency stands for. They symbolise a clean break from an administration that valued military hard power over soft diplomacy, took the US away from multilateral initiatives, and engaged in a tug-of-war with China which did next to nothing to stem the tide of opposition to US dominance. When Evo Morales’s party returned to power in Bolivia a year after being toppled by a US backed coup, Ben Rhodes tweeted just two words to describe Trump’s misadventure: “incompetent imperialism.” “Incompetent” is how Power describes Trump as well.

By no means incompetent in their aims, humanitarians justify intervention on the basis of a moral duty to protect civilians from human rights abuses. Once a state commits such abuses, so the argument goes, it becomes accountable to the international community. Nations and states do not matter, not because they don’t exist in the minds of liberal humanitarians – far from it – but because in violating the fundamental norms of humanity, a government can no longer use sovereignty to ward off the threat of external intervention. This argument is not new: it goes back to as far as the 17th century, when Hugo Grotius observed that “kings, and those who possess rights equal to those kings” had the right of “demanding punishments” in respect of “injuries committed against themselves or their subjects” as well as “injuries which… excessively violate the law of nature or of nations in regard of any person whatsoever [my emphasis].”

The problem with humanitarian intervention is its fluidity: as with every other paradigm in the realm of international relations, it has undergone various transformations since its resurgence in the 1990s. Three transformations can be identified: the first under Clinton, the second under George W. Bush, the third under Barack Obama. There may be a fourth transformation under Joe Biden, but that remains to be seen.

Humanitarian interventionism manifested itself in the Clintonesque 1990s in the guise of liberal internationalism. Democrats, many of whom had opposed Ronald Reagan’s military excursions in Central America a decade earlier and George H. W. Bush’s excursions into the Persian Gulf two years before, transformed from foreign policy doves to hawks. In Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, they made the case for intervention first, then invasion. To justify the deployment of force, they resorted to idealist appeals, using moral suasion to persuade Congress to authorise overseas interventions. Conservatives begrudgingly supported these endeavours, but they felt moral suasion wasn’t enough: it promoted American values everywhere it went, yet failed to maintain American interests.

The Clintonesque 1990s gave way to the Bushite 2000s. Here humanitarian interventionism moved to a different direction. To project American dominance, it was felt necessary – since the foreign policy elite under Bush II, many of whom had crossed over from the Democratic to the Republican Party during the Reagan presidency, considered dominance an absolute imperative – to intervene only in situations where interventionism converged with national interests, or as Charles Krauthammer put it, “where there is a strategic necessity.” Based on that criterion, Afghanistan and Iraq counted, while Bosnia and Kosovo did not.

This variant of interventionism became known as “democratic realism”, and it came under attack from academics who had supported Clinton’s foreign policy, most notably Francis Fukuyama (“The Neoconservative Moment”). Its advantage was its clarity: unlike the ambiguities of Clintonesque intervention, democratic realism linked American values with American interests. Yet as the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq unfolded, as Bush’s “muscular liberalism” turned the US from superpower to policeman, one crucial element went missing: American leadership.

From the Bushite 2000s to the Obamist 2010s, humanitarian interventionism attempted to re-establish American leadership. Under Obama’s foreign policy triumvirate – Samantha Power, Hillary Clinton, and Susan Rice – the focus shifted from Clinton’s liberal internationalism and Bush’s democratic realism to an amorphous synthesis that attempted to balance the former’s reliance on moral suasion with the latter’s emphasis on force. Schooled by what they perceived as the failures of both extremes, they lent support to protestors and armed rebels in Libya.

Did it work? Far from it. Libya in particular was a PR nightmare, though that’s telling just half the story. While the Power-Clinton-Rice doctrine of aggressive liberal interventionism ended up toppling dictators from power, it failed to think of viable exit strategies and come up with reconstruction plans; in Tripoli, Sierte, and Benghazi, the strategy backfired.

The Obama administration could not have been blind to the quagmire it was getting itself into. Its myopia provoked opposition abroad as well as at home: emboldened by the failures of Tripoli, Sierte, and Benghazi, isolationist Republicans who had disfavoured costly external interventions gained in strength and numbers. Their campaigns culminated and peaked with Donald Trump’s election win in 2016. Trump’s defeat, in that sense, may herald a volte-face in foreign policy, a restoration of the status quo ante that will try to bring back the Power-Clinton-Rice triplex of interventionism: the “values of an open society”, the advancement of “US interests abroad”, and the restoration of “American leadership.”

Power ends her essay with a triumphalist flourish: after Trump’s defeat, she argues, the US must not only lead, but also project its power. But to project it, it must predominate. This is the aggressive liberal interventionist line all over again, and it remains to be seen whether, having failed the first time around, it will succeed in modified form the second time around. Of course, whether it fails or not we know, as do policymakers and advisors, that despite the most laudable of intentions, moral imperatives will converge with political objectives. In that respect we can only conclude that humanitarian intervention, far from being “devoid of raw national interest” (Krauthammer), has au contraire been quite dependent on it.

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