“I don’t think the US should use its military force except when we are attacked or directly threatened.”
“The US has a moral responsibility to help when a crazy dictator is machine-gunning his own people”
The issues being debated in the Libyan conflict are the “what?” and the “how?” – mission, means, tactics,is it a civil war, is al Quada burrowing among the rebels? But behind the headlines lies a longer-running American debate about the “why?” In shorthand, a policy of ”realism” has battled a policy based on “idealism” for almost as long as the life of this republic. "Realists" argue that the US should commit its military forces abroad only when the nation is directly attacked or threatened. "Idealists" claim a moral imperative to act against official inhumanity, preferably without using force, but if necessary using it even when the US is not attacked or directly threatened, and has no concrete stake in the outcome.
On March 28 President Obama explained the US action, asserting that “acting on behalf of what’s right” is where US interests and values converge. The following analysis tries to unpack the strategic debate that hangs over the battlefield. In one form or another it has been a basis for defining the national interest through much of American history.
As early as 1808, John Quincy Adams warned against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Early 20th century isolationism was an exaggerated and ultimately discredited expression of realism’s assessment of the national interest. In the mid-twentieth century the foundational realist approach to national interest was expounded by three brilliant men – George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Reinhold Niebuhr – who were enormously influential theorists of the position that, however much the heart may be touched by inhumanity, the head tells us to stay our hand unless attacked. An extreme version was supplied by an Englishman, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Gray, who famously said that Britain had neither friends nor enemies, only interests. All were doubtless influenced by a 15th century Florentine palace adviser named Niccolo Machiavelli.
The opposing school of thought took modern shape when President Woodrow Wilson’s justification for war was defense of democracy. Human rights as a policy driver in the Carter administration marked a changing equation, and by the 1990’s the US intervened to stem official outrages in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo – but looked away from the far greater carnage in Rwanda (for which President Clinton later publicly apologized). Belated US intervention produced mixed results in the genocidal Balkan wars, and a humiliating failure in Somalia. Realists deplored Clinton’s use of force for humanitarian purposes as well as doing so through the irrelevant UN. (In 2000 Condeleeza Rice, forecasting President George W. Bush’s foreign policy, blew off the “international community” as a phantom. Later, as Secretary of State, she never failed to invoke the international community in her speeches.) Iraq neither attacked nor, it turned out, threatened the US when Washington launched the 2003 war (official lies led me to initially support the use of force). The concept of “responsibility to protect” in case of genocide and war crimes within national borders, hitherto sacrosanct, was formally adopted by the UN in 2005. On occasion itt was supported by President George W. Bush as well as President Obama.
In fact, all conservatives are not necessarily realists, nor all liberals unadulterated idealists. One columnist dubbed the Libyan action “liberal intervention,” yet it was supported by former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain as well as by neoconservatives, who have their own Middle East agenda. Defense Secretary Gates seemed to support his president’s policy while still saying that Libya was not a “vital interest”. Republican Senator Lugar agreed, but went further to conclude that it was thus not justified. A pure realist position would reject US involvement in wars of choice rather than wars of necessity.
But having established humanitarian intervention as policy, what about Bahrain and Yemen, not to mention Syria, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, and Congo, all places where governments are murdering their citizens? Are we being hypocritical? The answer is that we can’t be everywhere, given limits on both resources and public patience. There are places like Bahrain, with a major US naval base, where vital US interests will trump responbility to protect. The multilateral urge can be left, it is argued, to the African Union.
Vital national interests must first mean defending and responding to attacks on the United States. But US major interests arguably include two fundamental values that define America as a nation and keep it exceptional. The first is our core ideology, neither realist nor idealist but universal, captured in Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The second is protection of the helpless when they are being slaughtered by tyrants. The US pioneered the concept of collective security under the UN Security Council and though it has as many failures as successes, it is particularly applicable ro egregious governmental brutality in a time of evolving regional leadership under the banner of human rights and humanitarian protection. We should look at it as another small step toward a more effective multilateral community, of which America remains an indispensable contributor.