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Self Service

Liberalism v. national interest.

To hear Democratic leaders and Democratic political candidates declaim on war is to conclude that liberals are totally incoherent on the subject of power. Liberalism, on the other hand, is quite coherent. It is important to distinguish between the two. Politicians are pulled by public opinion, by calculations of political advantage, and by other nonideological considerations. Hence, the cacophony of liberal voices about war with Iraq. Not only do these voices contradict each other, but some contradict themselves, not only day to day but even within the same speech--for instance, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, who make elaborate cases as to why deterrence is to be preferred over war in Iraq and then absurdly add that, of course, Iraq must be disarmed.

In the United States, where party discipline is so lax, it is particularly hard to ascribe thematic coherence to the party out of power. To speak definitively about American liberalism's view of power, one has to look at what it did when it ran U.S. foreign policy. During the 1990s, liberalism spoke quite clearly. Strikingly, the very same party that voted overwhelmingly against going to war to expel Iraq from Kuwait ordered American troops to intervene in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and dramatically escalated American intervention in Somalia.

It is thus a mistake to say that liberalism is hostile to the exercise of power in and of itself. When given authority, liberalism rained hell on Serbia, killed a host of Somalis, and used the threat of overwhelming force to take over Haiti. The problem for liberals is not the notion of power. It is the notion of national interest. It is not that they oppose power in principle but that they have great difficulty seeing national interest as a justification for wielding power. Their ostensible aversion to power is really an aversion to deploying it selfishly, as they see it, in pursuit of parochial American interests; they are quite willing to use power--indeed, promiscuously so--for disinterested reasons of humanitarianism as detached as possible from any concrete American national advantage. They like their power pure.

For post-cold-war liberalism, self-interest is tainted and corrupting. It is not just a dispensable criterion for intervention, it is disqualifying. The apparent liberal flip-flops on intervention now begin to make sense. In Kuwait, in 1991, where American national interests were seriously engaged (inaction would have left the Arabian peninsula in the control of Iraq and quickly transformed it into a nuclear regional superpower), they opposed the use of force. In Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans, where American national interests are at most only tangentially engaged, they themselves sent in the cavalry.

Liberals intervened in these strategically marginal locales not out of any desire to injure America. On the contrary, they did it out of a deep desire to purify, to redeem America by making her an instrument of justice. Liberalism does not lack for patriotism. On the contrary, it believes that it is ennobling the United States with a foreign policy of altruism. And, because only intervention devoid of self-interest is morally unimpeachable, it is the only kind that a good conscience can support.

A classic example of this requirement of disinterestedness emerged during an exchange between Madeleine Albright and editors of The Washington Post shortly before the invasion of Haiti. She was questioned about the necessity of the invasion. She countered: If the cold war were still on and "if Haiti were threatened by communism, none of you would be raising these questions." Well, of course they would not. There would then be a clear, strategic reason for the operation. For Albright, however, it was precisely because the Haiti operation was devoid of strategic rationale--unlike Cuba, or Nicaragua for that matter, Haiti was hardly going to become a Soviet beachhead in the Americas--that an invasion could be justified. To have a strategic reason, meaning to have a reason that satisfies a selfish national interest, is thus a moral taint.

One might argue that my thesis about liberalism and power is contradicted by the war in Afghanistan and the unanimous support it enjoyed both among the elites and the public. I think not. Self-defense is a special case--as scientists say, a trivial case. No serious person opposes the use of force in self-defense. (Only principled pacifists and less admirable kooks do.) Thus, self-defense is useless as a criterion for distinguishing attitudes toward the use of power. We were attacked on September 11; we attacked Afghanistan to attack our attackers. It is a simple proposition, and, in international relations, axiomatic. There is not a single country on the planet that for any significant period of time adheres to pacifism. If there are any, or were any, they would simply and soon disappear; the state of nature that is the international system does not permit otherwise. Some countries, such as Japan, may (temporarily) delegate their self-defense to stronger friends, such as the United States. But that is not pacifism; that is prudence. And some, such as Switzerland, may abjure intervention in other people's wars; they are quite prepared, however, to fight their own. That is not pacifism either.

American liberals are not pacifists. Their aversion to power-for-national- interests does not extend to clear and present self-defense. Liberalism, after all, is not the stupid party. (Although, it must be noted, that what opposition there was to the Afghan war came mostly from the usual left-liberal precincts. Nonetheless, these can be written off as fringe elements.) But, when the dots need to be connected, when the train of causality is more strained, when the threat is more long-range and speculative, and when the motive of pure self- defense might be contaminated by other motives--such as bringing democracy at the point of a bayonet to a foreign land or even a foreign culture, such as demonstrating America's willingness to preemptively disarm potential adversaries--liberal support breaks down. Hence the liberal disarray over Iraq. The very thought that there might be some unintended auxiliary economic benefit from a war on Iraq--namely, control of Iraqi oil fields--is enough to make some liberals oppose the venture regardless of its other merits. If Kosovo had oil, liberals would have been found demonstrating against its liberation.

THE CASE FOR war in Iraq is complex, and the liberals are split. Bill Keller of The New York Times calls those who, like him, inhabit the usual New Yorker- like liberal precincts and yet, however grudgingly, support the war, the "I- Can't-Believe-I'm-a-Hawk Club." They are not really hawks, however. They are doves who've been mugged by reality, September 11 reality. They do count, although they are considerably outnumbered by the liberal intellectuals, celebrities, and political figures who have attached themselves to the "Not In Our Name" antiwar manifesto.

Among serious politicians, for every Joe Lieberman, there is a Carl Levin. For every Richard Gephardt, a Teddy Kennedy. Liberalism as a school of thought does not know what to think today. It knew what to think in 1991. With few exceptions (Lieberman among them), liberals were for "peace," meaning the status quo, with the flimsy political cover of sanctions. This despite the fact- -for some, indeed, because of the fact--that we had obvious and extraordinary national interests in the Gulf, interests so obvious and extraordinary that even Jimmy Carter's own "Carter Doctrine" pledged American intervention in defense of the Gulf.

Last time around, war in the Gulf could hardly be portrayed as American self- defense. Kuwait was attacked, not New York. This time around, war in the Gulf can be portrayed as American self-defense, but that requires a train of logic. Hence the quandary: Liberalism supports simple self-defense but opposes national aggrandizement. It cannot therefore deal coherently with war in Iraq, which not only requires a complicated notion of self-defense but which necessarily will result in American aggrandizement through the extension of U.S. hegemony in the Arab world.

Which is why it was a conservative administration that conceived the idea and is following it through. For conservatives, the expansion of American power and the advance of American interests occasion neither shame nor remorse.