My colleague Nick Gvosdev has an insightful piece this morning on the future of interventions after Libya. (Of course I think it’s insightful, since Nick quotes me, but neither here nor there.) He agrees that interventions are here to stay — which would be hard to refute given some 20 years of them — and that the real question now is not whether the Western powers will intervene in various cases, but when and how.
He also notes an important observation by Dan Drezner that I have tried to hammer into my students for years: that what presidents say on the road while campaigning does not have much to do with how they’re going to react to foreign policy problems once they’re in the Oval Office. They can say a lot of things in little towns in Ohio, but when they report for work, they all get the brief for the new President: then they open it, read it for the first time, and say: “Aww…crap.” It’s also the moment where every president probably develops a little bit more respect for his predecessor.
There’s no way to escape at least some of these interventions without risk or damage of one kind or another. If a massive humanitarian disaster is looming, and Washington takes a pass, we’ll be pilloried as heartless rich kids who don’t care about black/brown/green/purple people who aren’t Americans.
If we do intervene, we’re either imperialists (the Third World interpretation) or reckless adventurists (the interpretation of U.S. politicians of whatever party isn’t controlling the White House at that moment.)
Obama has tried to make explicit as a doctrine what was implicit under Bush 43 and Clinton: that the United States will not tolerate such immense threats of suffering if there is a realistic possibility to avert it. But this was always unstated U.S. policy, based on traditional Just War precepts about responsibility and proportionality. What we need is not another ignored “doctrine,” but a full-throated defense of human rights. Since the administration’s approach to foreign affairs is never “full-throated” about anything, this is unlikely, especially when the economy looks like a flaming dumpster for the moment. But that’s not going to stop the next group of maniacs, wherever they are, from putting us on the spot again sometime soon.