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!