America, Forever At War
~by Elias Isquith
James Joyner’s got a piece up at The Atlantic called “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology” — and it’s a total disaster. From start-to-finish, the article is ill-conceived and under-thought and it strains under the weight of a rhetorical construct of unfair equivocations and a misreading of American history. The general thrust of Joyner’s article is that the neoconservatives on the right and the humanitarian interventionists on the left are essentially interchangeable strains of the same dominant foreign policy ideology that has dictated American decision-making for nearly twenty years. He doesn’t give us a pithy catch-phrase to describe this two-headed hydra of international meddling, but he defines it as being in-contrast to the realism that, supposedly, determined policy prior to and up until President Clinton.
So if you’ll allow me a long-ish post, I’d like to tackle what I see as the fundamental mistakes of the piece.
First, we have the idea that there’s basically no difference between neoconservatism and liberal interventionism. To his credit, Joyner airs what would be the most obvious and immediate counterpoint, expressed by Jim Arkedis,
The Progressive Policy Institute’s Jim Arkedis, who describes himself as a “progressive internationalist,” calls this notion of a neocon-liberal alliance “bunk.” Neocons, according to Arkedis, “disdain multilateral diplomacy and overestimate the efficacy of military force” in a way that “saps the economic, political, and moral sources of American influence.” He adds, “Though our ends are similar, our thresholds for intervention, our military methodology, and our justifications for action could not be more different.”
To this, Joyner responds,
But are neoconservatives and liberal interventionists really so different? Neoconservative bastions like the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies are passionate advocates of spreading American values. In Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and discovery that there was no WMD program to speak of were both accomplished in the first weeks of the war and with a relative handful of American casualties. If these had been our chief concerns we would have left immediately; the apparent U.S. goals in staying on so many years were democracy promotion and nation-building, both ideals the neoconservative White House leadership shared with liberal interventionists.
Further, while neocons are doubtless less patient than liberal interventionists when it comes to exhausting diplomatic options and achieving international consensus, what does it really matter if the end result is the same either way: military action.
Let’s work backwards on this one. To say that the differences between neocons and liberal interventionists are negligible because the end result is “the same either way” is an enormous leap, and I think it’s somewhat remarkable that Joyner feels comfortable making it without further buttressing his point. It’s as if saying both the bully and the bullied are equally morally culpable since self-defense and unprovoked attacks both result in conflict. Further, Joyner brushes aside the painstaking consensus-building central to liberal interventionism as merely an act of greater “patience” that neoconservatives forego. The underlying assumption here seems to be that the substance itself of a military action is not intimately determined by the processes that lead to its enacting. The example of the recent war in Iraq vs. the bombing campaign in Libya should be enough to show that, whatever the latter’s faults, it most certainly has not been “the same” result as what was seen in Baghdad.
And, of course going rather unmentioned by Joyner is the fact that perhaps the two most important thinkers driving our policy of intervention in Libya — President Obama and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power — happened to, despite being liberal interventionists, oppose the Iraq invasion from the very start. It significantly clouds Joyner’s argument, then, (as well as the realities of contemporary elite foreign policy debate) to imply otherwise.
Moving on, when Joyner says that the “apparent U.S. goals [in Iraq] were democracy promotion and nation-building” he gives George W. Bush entirely too much credit while granting his audience far too little. Yes, there was a time when Bush spent a great amount of political capital arguing that we must “stay the course” in Iraq in order to plant the seed of democracy in the Middle East; but that was merely one of seemingly dozens of excuses and explanations for our continued presence that Bush and company cooked up. As was obvious to most of us from the first moments that it was clear no WMD were going to be found, Bush stayed in Iraq because either 1.) conditions in the country had become so chaotic that an American withdrawal could destabilize the entire region, 2.) the President refused to implicitly acknowledge his enormous, near-criminal mistake and concede defeat or 3.) a little bit of both. The fact that the people who got us into Iraq to begin with so constantly shifted the goal-posts when it came to necessary conditions for our departure tells us all we need to know as to their intellectual sincerity.
Lastly — and this is probably where Joyner travels furthest astray — is the idea that the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists are two peas in a pod because both “are passionate advocates of spreading American values.” If this is to be accepted, then the question arises: was Thomas Jefferson a neoconservative or a liberal interventionist? How about Alexander Hamilton? James Monroe? Andrew Jackson? James K. Polk? Or how about McKinley? By that criteria, nearly every major figure in American foreign policy since the founding, then, could credibly be assigned to one side or the other of the now all-encompassing neocon/interventionist dichotomy. Because America’s been passionately advocating its values since the earliest days of the republic (just look at the sheer number of conflicts here that could be credibly described as being values-based). Whether adopting a policy international relations experts would call “realist” or “Wilsonian” or the like, American Presidents have always framed their decisions in such language.
Joyner attempts to side-step this enormously problematic fact of history by arguing that even if all of American rhetoric sounds the same, he knows which of our constant invasions were really the result of neocon/interventionist thinking and which were more pure, sharp-minded displays of realism. Though convenient, it’s not especially convincing,
Starting with the 1991 Gulf War, however, despite the end of the Cold War, we’ve had two decades of non-stop fighting: Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995, Serbia-Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan starting in 2001, and Iraq again from 2003. With Libya, we’ve added another U.S. war.
Ideologically, the George H.W. Bush administration should not have been inclined toward military intervention. Bush senior was a reluctant intervener, the National Security Council was guided by eminent realist Brent Scowcroft, and Colin Powell, the author of an eponymous doctrine that urges extreme caution in going to war, headed up the Joint Chiefs. And yet the administration launched three major military operations in its four-year term: the Panama invasion (derided by many as Operation Just ‘Cause), the first Gulf War, and the Somalia intervention.
But all three of those missions were at least ostensibly tied to U.S. national interests. As odd as the Panama invasion seems in hindsight, earning the derisive nickname “Operation Just ‘Cause,” at the time, it was justified within the realist goals of safeguarding U.S. personnel in country, combating drug trafficking, and protecting the Panama Canal. The first Gulf War was, at its heart, about preventing Saddam Hussein from gaining control of more than half the world’s oil supply. And Bush envisioned Somalia as a purely humanitarian relief mission; it morphed into warlord hunting and nation building under his successor.
After briefly noting that the United States was intervening in Latin America, African, and Middle Eastern affairs in the 1980s under Reagan — and that Bush’s policies in that regard were truly nothing new — we should take a moment to reflect that the line-up of “national interests” Joyner lists there are rather thin. Certainly a “humanitarian relief mission” or an assault with “protecting the Panama Canal” in mind are no more able to withstand scrutiny on realist grounds than those arguments put forth by the President to justify the campaign in Libya. It’s not as if, in his speech on the matter, Obama didn’t do all he could to make the argument that a Gaddafi massacre would destabilize the region and threaten our national interests. Similarly, Clinton’s arguments in favor of the bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia in part centered around a citing of national interests.
I’m not saying these were wars of national interest; I’m merely saying that all Presidents say as much prior to giving the go-ahead. H.W. Bush’s excuses are no more convincing than those of B.H. Obama.