The Obama Doctrine: Humanitarian Imperialism
The "Obama Doctrine," such as it is, seems to boil down to moral self-certainty combined with a glaring ignorance of reality. That's a dangerous combination.
As James Joyner noted earlier today, there’s some disagreement among pundits over whether or not President Obama articulated a coherent foreign policy doctrine during his speech about the intervention in Libya last night. Tagegan Goddard wraps up some of the assessments in the media:
First Read: “This, as we’ve said before, is the Obama Doctrine: The U.S. will take military action to avert a humanitarian crisis if its scope is limited and if it has the backing of the world community.”
The Fix: “Obama pushed back on the notion that the United States should police the world, but also left the door open to getting involved when American interests — or even values (a much lower standard) — are at stake. The key to Obama’s remarks, though, was the idea that the United States should act in concert with allies.”
Mark Thompson: “This is less a repudiation of Powell than a shift in emphasis, a push toward multilateralism and a willingness to hand off command (and responsibility) to others. Obama, he made clear Monday night, is willing to invest less in world hot spots in exchange for assuming a lesser risk.”
Before deciding if these assessments are correct, it pays to take a look (again) at the key section of the President’s speech last night where he described what some are saying his new foreign policy doctrine:
There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.
In such cases, we should not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.
This isn’t a new idea on Obama’s part, it’s a variation on the so-called “Responsibility To Protect Doctrine,” which has been brewing in the corridors of the United Nations for a few years now:
This doctrine is known as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P for short) and was endorsed by the United Nations in 2005. It mandates that the “international community” is morally obliged to defend people who are in danger of massive human-rights violations. It’s rooted in Western guilt over the failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda. R2P is the moral underpinning of the war in Libya, and it’s the reason why people such as Paul Martin, Roméo Dallaire, Mr. Rae and Mr. Axworthy have been so amazingly eager for us to rush into battle.
So have Ms. Power and her sister warriors Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. Together, these three convinced Mr. Obama of the urgent moral case for war in Libya. Ms. Power is the author of the enormously influential book A Problem from Hell, about Washington’s failure to prevent genocide in the 20th century. Her counterpart in France is the glamorous philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who flew to Benghazi, met the rebels, and persuaded French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who badly needs a boost in the polls) to back them.
In other words, the war in Libya is a creation of the liberal intellectuals – just as the war in Iraq was a creation of the neo-conservatives. Many of the liberal intellectuals who vigorously opposed the Iraq war have just as vigorously been advocating intervention in Libya. Both groups are serenely convinced of their own moral rightness. Yet, the delusions of the R2P crowd aren’t all that different from the delusions of the neo-cons, who thought they could march into Iraq, decapitate the dictator, and help the cheering throngs embrace democracy. Has the past decade taught these people nothing?
As with the neo-cons, though, the R2pers use their own sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness to hide a bitter reality; that their doctrine is far from being the grand paean to universal human rights that they like to pretend that it is. For one thing, it’s fairly clear that not every act of genocide will be addressed by the international community. The world would likely be silent if China were to launch a repeat of Tiananmen Square, for example, or if Russia were to launch another war against the Chenchen rebels. Closer to home, the odds of the international community ever intervening in a nation like Yemen, Baharain, Syria, Iran, or Saudi Arabia are slim to none. And forget about Europeans or Americans being at all eager to expend blood and treasure putting down a repressive government in some forgettable African country. Libya was picked mostly because it was an easy target, and because Muammar Gaddafi has no real friends left in the world, a fact brought home by the fact that neither Russia nor China did anything to stop UNSCR 1973. Everyone dislikes Gaddafi, which, combined with the geography of Libya itself, makes him an easy target. The “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine, therefore, seems more like an excuse for Europeans and Americans on the left to support intervention not because it protects the vital interests of the nations they live in, but because it makes them feel good.
There’s another similarity between the R2P crowd and the neo-cons, of course. In both cases, there is an absolute sense of certainty that causes people to ignore the facts on the ground. For the neo-cons, the certainty that we’d be greeted as liberators by the people of Iraq and Afghanistan caused them to discount the necessity for any kind of post-war planning, and to believe that merely introducing “democratic” institutions into nations that had never known democracy would lead to an immediate transformation that took decades, if not centuries, in the West. For the R2P’ers, it’s absolutely certainty that merely being guided by the desire to “help” people is sufficient to accomplish their goals, meaning that there’s no need to worry about the fact that the rebels you’re protecting are allied with a terrorist group, or that the conflict your’re intervening in may be more tribal than political. Finally, for both the neo-con and the R2Per there is the overwhelming certainty that they are better judge’s of the future of a nation than the people who actually live there.
This kind of smug moralism usually leads to disaster when it runs headlong into reality, but it’s also a sign that, hypocrisy notwithstanding, the “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine marks a significant shift in course:
We have entered a new age – the age of humanitarian imperialism. Humanitarian imperialists are besotted with fantasies of the West’s inherent goodness. As American writer David Rieff puts it, they have promised that, from now on, all wars will “noble wars of altruism.” To them, the facts on the ground don’t matter much. What really matters is their good intentions.
And we all know the ultimate destination of a road paved with good intentions.