George Will takes on both Tony Blair and the neocons in his latest column:
United States warships carrying 2,300 Marines are off Liberia’s coast, U.S. forces still are in harm’s way in Afghanistan and U.S. military deaths in Iraq are, as this is written, just nine short of the total before President Bush declared major combat operations over. But some people think America is underengaged abroad.
For example, the presidents of Oxfam America and Refugees International, writing in The Washington Post in support of intervention in Liberia, urge the Bush administration to confront “head-on” many crises: “Central Asia, the Balkans and Western Africa are areas of the world that provide too many examples of what happens when U.S. power is not used proactively.”
Such incitements to foreign-policy hyperkinesis can draw upon the messianic triumphalism voiced by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in last month’s address to a rapturous Congress:
“There is a myth that though we love freedom, others don’t; that our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture; that freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law are American values, or Western values; that Afghan women were content under the lash of the Taliban; that Saddam was somehow beloved by his people; that Milosevic was Serbia’s savior.
“Ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police.”
Neoconservatives seem more susceptible than plain conservatives are to such dodgy rhetoric and false assertions.
Will takes on both the idea that Western ideals of individual liberty are universal and, especially, the premise that it is the duty of the U.S. to use its military might to guarantee those liberties everywhere.
This is a debate that began almost immediately after the Cold War, when hawks and doves reversed poles. Suddenly, Republicans who put together an otherwise untenable coalition of laissez faire capitalists and Christian conservatives almost entirely around the support of a strong military to combat communism, became nearly isolationist, arguing that military force should be used only to secure vital US interests. On the other side, the liberal Democrats who had been strongly suspicious of the military starting with the Vietnam era, became enthusiastic supporters of the use of force for nation building. Ironically, they were joined in this effort by many so-called neoconservatives, whose very name is almost an epithet these days to some on both the left and right.
For a brief period after 9/11, both sides were united in an understanding that we had to defend ourselves against the “evil doers,” starting with the al Qaeda-supporting Taliban regime in Afghanistan. To coalition quickly unraveled, however, with the drive to war in Iraq, with the neocons now back with the traditional conservatives backing war and many on the left dubious of intervention. The lofty rhetoric of Tony Blair and occasional eloquence even of President Bush on this matter, though, appealed to both sides: not only was war in our national interests, but we were liberating the people of Iraq from a brutal tyrant. Indeed, the very name of the campaign was Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Liberia is yet another decision point. It reminds us once again that there are a lot of brutal dictators out there and that democracy is still rather scarce on the African continent and throughout much of what we once called the Third World. The events of 9/11, however, cast new light on all this: Is it in our enlightened self interest to topple tyrants whenever possible lest these societies become breeding grounds for terrorists? Maybe so.
But George Will’s question is pragmatic: This task is virtually impossible. It is certainly beyond the scope of the power of even the United States. Another President George Bush spoke of a New World Order that would see all the countries in the Free World joining together to oppose repression, but that vision never came to pass. And, as the buildup to the Iraq War demonstrated, we can’t always count on the support of the UN to help shoulder the burden. So, absent a stronger international consensus, we’re still going to have to be selective in choosing countries to save.
Will was never a neocon. He–and I–have long argued for a Realist foreign policy. Will supported taking out Saddam because it was in the US interest, not to liberate the Iraqis. (Not that he’s unhappy with that result.)
My views are evolving on this question, as it’s clear to me that there is a heavy price to be paid for allowing dictators to continue in power. But, as a practical matter, I don’t know how to fix this one.