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.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Africa, Democracy, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John says:

    Not to be snarky, but I’m glad there’s some signs of “buyer’s remorse”.

  2. Kristopher says:

    The solution is that the US can’t do it alone. If we want to “choose a country to save” then we have to get others to go along with us or be willing to face the long term consequences if we don’t.

    We desperately need a foreign policy, where yes we push the ideals of freedom and democracy, but not necessarily only the American model of these ideals. That is how we bring along additional supporters. There is a lot of work to be done on the international front to converse our allies that we truly desire their help and contribution, not just their manpower.

  3. Rick DeMent says:

    I’m typically uncomfortable with absolutes. “We will stay until the fight is done, pay any price.” That kind of rhetoric plays well with the crowd but frankly it short sheets our options and put an unnecessary pressure on our leaders to follow though when circumstances might suggest other option would be more suitable. I think we need an integrated foreign policy that reflects a broad goal of working with the largest and most important states in areas where we agree and an ongoing dialog in those areas where we disagree and a philosophy that reflects the ongoing needs of our nation with a recognition of the needs of other nations as well.

    I was very uncomfortable with the idea that liberating Iraq was a “goal” of this war. After all it was the only thing that the administration considered negotiable. On more then a few occasion Bush and administration officials said that if Saddam complied with the UN resolutions and disarmed then he would be free to continue his murderous regime. It also made us inexplicably accept the role of the worlds policeman. As a nation we have neither the resources nor the political will to right every wrong, and that sets us up for accusations of selective enforcement with ulterior motives. Think about it, unless you are convinced that there was a specific and coordinated arrangement between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda regarding 9/11 nothing had changed on the ground in Iraq in the last 4 years. The brutal regime of Saddam was well known, and the lions share of the most horrible examples of his regime that were uncovered lately date back to the dates when he was our ally, yet there no discussion of Iraq in specific or terrorism in general at all in the 2000 campaign.

    Reasonable people can argue that 9/11 changed the dynamic significantly and I don’t disagree. But 9/11 did not change the fact that the Hussein regime was and had been a brutal, murderous dictator and yet despite the hand wringing from mostly left wing human rights groups, who had been documenting the atrocities for over a decade, it seems disingenuous for Bush administration to suddenly embrace the welfare of the Iraqi people as a cause celeb simply because that seemed to be a rationalization for the invasion that Americans (who are naturally very sympatric to the plight of the oppressed) could strongly identify with.

    War should not be the last resort because it kills women, children and puppies, although I have nothing personally against women, children and puppies, it should be the last resort because it’s expensive, divisive and it’s bad for business (the Godfather principal). War cannot solve problems like terrorism, war can only take and hold territory. The war on terror is not a war of the battle field, it’s a war of special ops, surgical strikes, intelligence, diplomacy, propaganda and all of the other tools at our disposal in the areas of warcraft, statecraft and economics.

    Having said all this I want to make sure its understood that as far as the regime of Saddam Hussein is concerned I’m glad the bastards out of power and hopefully dead. But I agree with Will on this issue that we are in need of a more nuanced approach to foreign policy particularly were policing the world is concerned. We need to make sure that if we accept the role of policeman that we don’t pick and choose targets based on ancillary US interests or we lose the moral credibility to use the humanitarian argument for taking military action altogether.

  4. James Joyner says:


    Your position is pretty much the one I’ve held for years. The problem I’m having is that picking and choosing necessarily involves our moral credibility. I agreed, for example, with President Clinton’s decision not to intervene in Rwanda because I thought it was just not amenable to the use of American military power and the risk outweighed the reward. But that decision came back to bite us in the PR wars down the line.

    As Don Rumsfeld notes, a problem without a solution isn’t a problem but a fact. And this may just be a fact. But it’s a fact I’m trying to wrestle with.

  5. John says:

    My shorter version of Will n’ y’all: “It occurs to me that bringing freedom to godless heathens at the point of a sword is a sysiphian task. Expensive, too.”

  6. James Joyner says:


    Certainly true. Although apparently some of the heathens actually want the help. After all, the swords aren’t aimed at them but at their rulers.

  7. Rick DeMent says:


    I agree that the method for picking and choosing needs to be better developed and that was kind of my point. I’m not real wild about humanitarian intervention. I would much rather see us support the opposition of brutal dictators with weapons and aid so they can sort it out themselves. The problem with Iraq is that approach would have resulted in another unacceptable government (from the US standpoint) running in Iraq if the uprising was successful. We are also, as a country, squeamish about giving other people large amounts of guns because they tend to end up getting fired back at us for one reason or another.

    But for me in order to undertake a humanitarian effort I want the full cooperation and participation of at least one country that borders the target, the full cooperation and participation of the principal countries in the region, and cooperation and participation of some international group be it NATO, or the UN or some other recognized organization of states (like we had in Gulf war I). This way we are immune from the criticism of ulterior motives and we spread the cost around. Now that would have made the war in Iraq harder if not impossible to prosecute because we would have had to make the case based on the urgency and severity of the threat posed by Iraq to the US. A much harder case to make. But at least would be developing more consistent foreign policy.

    Of course Saddam would still be there (a bad thing), but look at the bright side, the UN weapons inspectors wouldn’t have found the WMDs either [grin]

  8. John says:

    James, I’m all for democracy and unlike George, I don’t think that they don’t want it. I agree the sword is placed at the right target. I just question the wisdom of trying to do it alone. After all, wasn’t Julius Caesar stabbed by a zillion different people simultaneously? We should have used the UN (extra hands on the sword, if nothing else). Now we’re on our own holding an expensive bag o’ sh*t.

  9. James Joyner says:

    John: Don’t disagree. But the UN wasn’t coming along for the ride on this one no matter what we did. It was “coalition of the willing” or nothing.

  10. John says:

    Ah, big disagreement. We had the UN over a barrel. The only thing they were asking for was another 3 months. We could have gotten them to agree to anything on March 17. We blew it. We purposely gave them the big finger. Now we have buyer’s remorse like an adolescent who just trashed his car in anger.

  11. James Joyner says:

    John: Why do you say that? Every time a deadline passed, it was extended.