Two elder American statesman, at least one of which might better be put on trial for war crimes, have come up with an attempt to square the circle by reconciling “realism” and “idealism”—that is, neoconservative interventionism—in regard to “humanitarian” wars. They fail.
Writing in the Washington Post, Henry Kissinger and James Baker make an effort to describe the principles that ought to be applied when invading, bombing or otherwise attacking a country over cases in which direct national security interests aren’t at stake but human life is. Leaving aside whether or not readers ought to take Kissinger seriously on a matter of public policy, the two men declare: “Having served four US presidents during a variety of international crises, we view the choice between ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’ as a false one. Just as ideals must be applied in concrete circumstances, realism requires context for our nation’s values to be meaningful. To separate them risks building policy on sand.”
It’s a critical question, and it’s one that the left must grapple with far more intensely than it has. In his recent speech in support of the American-NATO attack on Libya, President Obama made it clear that there are little or no limits on his determination to use military force when and where he sees fit. The president declared that he is more than ready to use military force unilaterally in cases where US interests are at stake, and that he will also use military force when American “values” are threatened abroad. Although Obama stated a preference for force in combination with allies and international support, including United Nations backing, his support for “values”-based interventionism and “unilateral” actions means that he’s opened to the door for unlimited American interventions even if no vital interests are at stake.
Kissinger and Baker propose a new term to replace “realism” and “idealism,” namely, “pragmatic idealism.” They say: “Our values impel us to alleviate human suffering. But as a general principle, our country should do so militarily only when a national interest is also at stake. Such an approach could properly be labeled ‘pragmatic idealism. ’ ” But in the very next sentence, they add: “Libya is arguably an exception to the rule.”
How many other exceptions are there? They don’t say. In a series of twisted-logic statements, Kissinger and Baker say that interventions should have clear goals and domestic support, and not be undertaken without an evaluation of possible “unintended consequences,” and they suggest that it might be a good idea if the United States understands whom it’s supporting and why. (In Libya, the United States really has no idea whom it’s backing.) But they conclude by stating that the reason why Libya might be an exception is that old standby, oil, since Libya is closely connected to the big prize by way of its Arab character: “We have a vital interest in long-term stability in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the source of much of the world’s energy.” Voila!
So it’s oil, not human life, at stake.
Elsewhere in the same edition of the Post, Gary J. Bass, the Princeton professor, points out the risks of interventionism in a piece titled “Why humanitarian wars can go so wrong.” Let’s leave aside, for the sake of argument, whether or not attacking Libya was the right thing. Bass says: “Since the goal is the defense of humanity, and there are humans facing violence in many places, how do you intervene in one spot and not another without drawing accusations of hypocrisy? After all, horrific mass atrocities happen all over the world; there are other countries that have endured worse slaughter than Libya without eliciting Western interventions. As the writer David Rieff has noted, during debates about rescue in the Balkans in the 1990s, skeptics would say, ‘I’ll see your Bosnia, and raise you one East Timor. ’ ” Bass raises questions about Congo, Ivory Coast and Bahrain, three places that the United States chooses not to intervene, as well as recent historical examples of Rwanda and Bosnia.
My own view: in making the case for intervening in Libya, Obama probably exaggerated the threat of a massacre in Benghazi. True, hundreds or even thousands might have died if Libyan troops had taken the city from rebels, as it seems they were poised to do. But in civil wars, many thousands die, and frequently; yet there was no concrete evidence that Muammar Qaddafi’s troops had carried out massacres in rebel-held cities they’d already seized, even if executions were carried out against rebel forces. By the same token, there are widespread reports that rebel forces in Libya have carried out similar executions of pro-Qaddafi loyalists when captured. And US and NATO forces have not only killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of Libyan troops, but they’ve also bombed rebel forces by mistake, killing them, too. Now, as Qaddafi’s forces make gains on the ground, partly by disguising their forces and using civilian vehicles, the situation on the ground is getting ugly. Not only are Qaddafi’s forces advancing west, possibly about to capture the strategic junction of Ajdabiya, but the city of Misurata is surrounded and suffering mightily. That’s led to talk that NATO ground forces might be deployed in support of the rebels.
As Bass warns, “Humanitarian interventions tend to use limited means, while flirting with maximalist goals.”
Meanwhile, there’s a chance that a diplomatic mission from the African Union, led by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, might succeed in winning a cease-fire and a negotiated solution to the Libyan crisis. But Zuma, whose UN delegation voted for the resolution that empowered NATO to attack Libya, is warning that he’s had second thoughts. NATO, he says, has violated both the “letter and spirit” of the UN resolution by trying to impose a “regime change doctrine.”