Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune nicely summarized this danger in an op-ed column he wrote on Sunday, in which he wrote:
...it's worth remembering what helped to get us into Iraq: a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that favors U.S. military intervention abroad whenever we may be able to accomplish something that looks appealing.And if you think that this problem is solely one of the neo-conservatives who get so much of the blame for the invasion of Iraq, think again. As Chapman points out, all three presidential candidates have expressed sentiments and foreign policy suggestions guided more by morals, values, and ideals than by realpolitik considerations.
Attitudes like that got us involved in the Balkans, where we had no national interest at stake; in Somalia, where we found ourselves fighting a war we didn't anticipate; and in Haiti, where our good intentions accomplished very little. Iraq, where conservatives turned idealistic liberal ideas to their own ends, was the ruinous culmination of that approach.
If there has been a flaw in U.S. foreign policy in recent years, it has not been an excess of disengagement, but the opposite: an irrepressible urge to use force for purposes that do not enhance our security but expose us to needless risk. The result has been that we find ourselves with more enemies, weakened influence, higher costs, greater strains on our military and less safety.
After the Iraq debacle, you would think our leaders would be willing to undertake a fundamental examination of the long-established and broad-based folly that made it possible. Not a chance.
Chapman's vision, and that of realists more broadly, is one where US foreign policy determinations are made along narrow lines of power, rather than any sense of "moral obligation," liberalism, or any other value.
During the early 1990s, McCain was wary of the use of American military power. But he supported sending American peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1995. When a civil war erupted in Kosovo in 1999, he became a fervent voice for using American bombers and even ground troops against Yugoslavia -- this when House Republicans were voting against giving President Clinton authority to go to war.
Soon after, McCain was urging a "rogue state rollback" policy. "We must be prepared," he said, to apply "military force when the continued existence of such rogue states threatens America's interests and values." Hmm. Whatever happened to that idea?
McCain's positions bear an eerie resemblance to those of Hillary Clinton, who vigorously favored her husband's decision to act in the Balkans. "I urged him to bomb," she said later. "You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time."
Her impulse to improve the world at the point of a gun was also on display in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Besides supporting the war resolution, Clinton often sounded like a crusading neoconservative, envisioning that Iraq would be a "model for other Middle Eastern countries" that would "shake the foundations of autocracy."
If Barack Obama is averse to fighting wars to spread democracy or to advance other noble purposes, he hasn't let on. He claims the United States has a "moral obligation" to act against "genocide" in Darfur, and he supports sending NATO forces to stop the bloodshed. One of his chief foreign policy advisers -- until she resigned over calling Clinton a "monster" -- was Samantha Power, a self-described "humanitarian hawk," who excoriated Bill Clinton for ruling out U.S. military action in Rwanda in 1994.
In a recent speech, Obama rejected the idea of cutting back our expansive role in the world. "We can choose the path of disengagment," he scoffed, "and cede our leadership."
To be sure, moralistic foreign policies have led the US into dangerous situations which have backfired. Somalia is the prime example of this, where the US intervened in a humanitarian disaster which escalated into a nation-building operation. But because the US didn't have the will to match its goals, the mission ended disastrously. But the common wisdom about Somalia isn't quite right. As Duke University professor Peter Feaver (full disclosure: Feaver was on my dissertation committee at Duke and I worked closely with him as a TA as well) writes:
The White House, having lost its stomach for the mission [in Somalia], cultivated a myth that it was the public, enraged by the death of U.S. troops, that demanded an exit from that country. The public was really only defeat-phobic -- not casualty-phobic -- but President Bill Clinton allowed defeat to be measured chiefly in terms of U.S. losses.Chapman fears that a foreign policy based on ideals and values will get the US embroiled into conflicts where "national interest" is not at stake. But as Feaver demonstrates, national interest is largely defined by political leadership. When the leaders do a good job of defining a foreign policy endeavor as commensurate with national interest, the public will support it. And Somalia is an excellent example of what happens when the public is not convinced.
It may be more difficult to make the case that a humanitarian intervention or the prevention of genocide is truly in the American national interest. And that is as it should be. The president should have to demonstrate to the American people that the use of US military power is in the national interest. But national interest cannot and should not be drawn solely along narrow, power-based lines. National interest is not, as realists argue, an objective phenomenon determined by external calculations like the balance of relative power. Power matters, but so does the national will, ideals, and values. As Robert Kagan points out in his excellent book Dangerous Nation, US foreign policy has always been guided by a moral compass.
As I wrote when I blogged about this problem 18 months ago:
If we learn anything from Iraq, it's that the US must be exceedingly careful if it ever thinks about attempting large-scale coercive nation-building. But that lesson must not force the US to retreat from its liberal mission. The US does not always act in accordance with its principles nor should it. But it is unthinkable that the US would NEVER do so. It was the US that rebuilt the shattered European and Japanese states after World War II, it is the US that presses Zimbabwe and Burma to improve their human rights records, it is the US that is standing firm in its refusal to negotiate with North Korea, it is the US that is keeping attention focused on Darfur. And without the security umbrella provided by US military hegemony, issues of human security such as the ICC would be nowhere near the international agenda.
Let's hope things stay that way.