Iraq, Yugoslavia, the American Right, and Humanitarian Interventions
Plus: A Prediction
Almost everyone I respect is furious about the fact that the administration switched its rationale for the war from a WMD-centered one to a humanitarian one. The fact that this only happend after
WMDs turned out to be the phantom menace is, of course, more than mere coincidence. And after listening to Republicans repeat their we-can't-be-the-world's-policeman
mantra for the last 30 years or so, their sudden conversion to the cause of international human rights strains credulity.
Think back less than a decade to the apoplectic reaction of many on the right to our humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia. Tom DeLay and his crew, for example, were relentless critics of our intervention. Quoting DeLay:
“President Clinton has never explained to the American people why he was involving the U.S. military in a civil war in a sovereign nation, other than to say it is for humanitarian reasons…”
The clear implication here is that humanitarian reasons are not sufficient for justifying the involvement of the U.S. military in a sovereign nation. DeLay contrasted these interventions with those of Gulf War Episode I, in which
"...our national interest...was clear. In the gulf we had a country that was invaded [Kuwait], and an oil interest to defend.”
This argument contains a moderately interesting confusion, so it may be worth examining in slightly more detail. DeLay is making a wee argument which, in textbook form, looks like this:
(1) In Gulf War Episode I Kuwait had been invaded
(2) In Gulf War Episode I we had an oil interest to defend
(3) In Gulf War Episode I our national interest was clear
But why is premiss (1) supposed to be relevant here? Either the invasion of Kuwait is relevant on humanitarian grounds or on the grounds of national interest. But DeLay is arguing that the former are insufficient for sending troops, so that can't be it. Even more obviously, if the invasion of Kuwait is supposed to be justified on humanitarian grounds, then premiss (1) is irrelevant to DeLay's conclusion, (3). (3) says that we had reasons of national interest
for undertaking the war, so pointing to humanitarian reasons can't establish that conclusion. Unless, of course, we were to add that acting on humanitarian grounds is in our (narrow) national interest, a premiss that DeLay cannot accept without undermining his case against intervention in the former Yugoslavia.
So (1) is really irrelevant to the argument. When this distracting premiss is eliminated, DeLay's position becomes clear: the first gulf war was justified because protecting the oil supply is in our narrow national interest. But the more important point left implicit is this: promoting our narrow national interest is (at least) necessary (and perhaps sufficient) for using our military. This is the position known as "Foreign Policy Realism." It is a version of ethical egoism at the level of nations: we never have a reason for acting unless there's something in it for us.
So how to reconcile this position with the right's new-found fervor for human rights? Some suggestions:
1. Not everybody on the right believes the same thing. One way that we go wrong in political discussion is that we sometimes cull one comment from this person on the right (or left) and one comment from that person on the right (or left) and then pretend that we have caught "the right" (or "the left") in a contradiction. Bush often speaks as if he is not a realist/national egoist about foreign policy. In fact, in a recent speech he explicitly criticized such "realism".
2. Few people are, in fact, strongly committed to "realism"/national egoism. Most people seem to think that the use of our military can only be justified if there is some measure of national interest at issue and at least some humanitarian considerations. And, I think, most people are pretty inconsistent about what the mix of these two types of considerations should be. This leads us to:
3. Many people are driven by their political affiliations to support or oppose a given war, and they choose to emphasize different considerations on the basis of which considerations tend to generate arguments for or against the war. In the case at hand, the right put its support behind this war relatively early on, probably at least in part because it was supported by a popular right-wing president. At first they supported it on grounds of national interest, but when those grounds failed they switched to humanitarian grounds.
(Liberals shouldn't be too smug about that last point, as they do the same kind of thing. It's common these days, for example, to hear liberals making complaints that sound like complaints against humanitarian interventions in general.)
But 2 and 3 only "reconcile" the right's new-found fervor for humanitarian interventions with its historical opposition to them in the sense of explaining
, not in the sense of justifying
. I, for one, would be ecstatic if the right had decided that our foreign policy needed to be conducted in a more humanitarian, less nationally-egoistic manner. The entire Iraq debacle might be worthwhile if it served to enlighten the American right, to make its view of foreign policy more like that of Jimmy Carter, and to banish foreign policy realism from Washington. But I doubt that Iraq signals the ascendance of right-wing humanitarianism. I expect that attempts to justify our Iraq adventure on humanitarian grounds are explained more by the considerations in 3 (above). One sign that humanitarian appeals are ad hoc
political expedients rather than an expression of an emerging right-wing humanitarianism is that there was so little planning for post-war Iraq. An intervention can only be justified on humanitarian grounds if there is a reasonable expectation that the people in question will be better off after the war than they were before the war. But so little energy went into insuring this that it is hard to believe that helping the people of Iraq was really one of the administration's major goals.
So, when those on the right trot out their shiny new humanitarian justifications for this war, we should make it clear to them that they are thereby admitting that they were wrong about Clinton's interventions in the former Yugoslavia. More importantly, we should make it clear to them that by employing this justification for intervention in Iraq they are committing themselves to a hawkish humanitarianism that will oblige us in the future to undertake military operations that, pre-Iraq, the right would have opposed with all its might.
Epilogue: A Prediction
The right's use of it's back-up humanitarian justification for Gulf War Episode II is far more canny strategically than it appears at first glance. I predict that the right will actually appeal to this war in future arguments against
humanitarian interventions, by pointing to how costly the war has been in blood and treasure. ("You silly liberal idealists... We tried one of your 'humanitarian' interventions in Iraq, and look what that cost us...") If the war ultimately goes badly, then it will provide them with an even stronger argument against humanitarian interventions in the future. So the right has put itself in a position such that even it if loses, it is more likely to win future debates about military intervention. By pretending that it undertook the war on liberal principles, it can blame those liberal principles for the failure of a conservative war.