The 11th Commandment for liberals seems to be, “Thou shalt not intervene out of self-interest.” Intervening in civil wars for humanitarian reasons is O.K., but meddling for national-security reasons is not. This would explain why liberals supported interventions in civil wars in Yugoslavia and Somalia but think being in one in Iraq is the height of folly. If only Truman had called the Korean civil war a humanitarian crisis, Ike might not have called the whole thing off. ~Jonah Goldberg

Unless I am misreading this very badly, isn’t Goldberg calling Eisenhower a humanitarian interventionist liberal?  Is the reference to “the Korean civil war” serious?  It could only really be called a Korean civil if the Koreans fighting one another were all members of the same polity, which was exactly what they were not in 1950-53.    

It’s late and I have been sick all week, so perhaps I have simply missed the part where this quote is a) correct and b) clever.  I know this is something of a standard line offered by the “hard Wilsonians” and aimed at the “soft Wilsonians”: our interventionism makes sense because it is based in self-interest, and yours is irrational because it excludes self-interest.  That would be interesting, if only it were true.  The two types have much more in common than either one would like to admit. 

More to the point, the more obvious and depressing reason why liberal interventionists oppose some allegedly “self-interested” wars of intervention is that they only oppose these when a member of the other party is in the White House.  The Clinton administration, and many liberal interventionists at the time along with it, obviously never had any problems with the idea of regime change in the name of national and regional security.  They discovered their opposition to regime change in Iraq (oh, sorry, I mean “disarmament and enforcing U.N. resolutions”) when someone else was running the operation.  Much of the liberal opposition, when it was not completely opportunistic and partisan, focused on Mr. Bush’s mistakes in how he was launching an aggressive war, and did not really claim that he was doing anything inherently wrong or unjustified.  Many of the opponents on the left, or at least on the center-left, did not even object to the goal of regime change as presented by Mr. Bush, but wanted it to go through the proper channels with all of the appropriate institutional stamps of approval.  In this way, the jingoes could make many opponents of the war appear rather silly, and all of this helped to make supporting the Iraq war seem like the viscerally patriotic thing to do–after all, everyone knows that real Americans don’t listen to the U.N. or Europeans, and anybody who supports all of that time-wasting procedure must not be very patriotic.  The ”debate” over Iraq was unfortunately carried on primarily between liberals of the “yes, Hussein should be disarmed and/or overthrown, but…” view and the supporters of Mr. Bush’s invasion.  (The non-liberal antiwar dissenters were constantly making their arguments, and were routinely making better ones than many on the left, but these dissenters were unfortunately never really in the main debate.)  I think of that debate as being like a scene where two people driving in a car are both committed to sending their car into oncoming traffic, but one of them wants to make sure that his insurance and registration are up to date before they do this while the other is in a hurry to crash the car.  Both are convinced that it is imperative that they crash the car, but the person who wants to take the slightly slower, more methodical approach to disaster is the liberal concerned with the proper procedure.     

It is true that liberal interventionists do not limit their calls for intervention to what Goldberg would regard as self-interested interventions.  This is why liberal interventionism is in some ways even more dangerous to this country, because there are no obvious limits to where American soldiers will be sent.  If Somalia, why not Congo?  If Congo, why not Zimbabwe?  To which the liberal interventionist will simply say, “One thing at a time.  We’ll get to Zimbabwe, don’t you worry.”  However, in virtually every case I can recall they hitch their do-gooding to some exaggerated definition of national interests and values…just as the current administration does, but arrange them in a slightly different order.  The main difference between “left” interventionists and “right” interventionists is the order in which they list their pretexts (sorry, I mean serious reasons) for invading, er, helping another country: the left will usually talk up the humanitarian side first and then proceed to their poor strategic arguments (e.g., “we cannot allow the Balkans to be destabilised, etc.”), while the right will focus on an overblown sense of the strategic importance of a crisis (”existential threat!”) and then mention that there is also a humanitarian and/or moral dimension (”he gassed his own people!”; “new Hitler!”).  The content of the justification ends up being more or less the same.  

Some of the foremost advocates for action in Darfur on the left are at The New Republic, which has distinguished itself for being for any and all military interventions everywhere for any reason for at least the last fifteen years.  (Their newfound regret for initially supporting the Iraq war is four years late and embarrassingly insufficient.)  They are so frequently in favour of intervention that they would probably have to seriously consider sending an expeditionary force if there was a cat stuck up in a tree somewhere in Tegucigulpas.  “Honduran cat-owners’ anxieties could spark political and social unrest!  Central America might be consumed in endless violence!  We must act now,” the editorial would blare.   

In their way, however, they are convinced that calling for intervention in Darfur is imperative for the national interest, just as these sorts of liberals argued, equally incredibly, that meddling further in Yugoslavia advanced the security of our allies in Europe by “stabilising” the Balkans.  Their legacy is the empowerment of jihad in Europe, the establishment of rampantly corrupt, criminal regimes and a brutal Albanian nationalist statelet in Kosovo whose proposed independence from Serbia could well trigger another round of bloodshed.  The Italians are especially grateful that we have helped shore up such egregious sources of criminality, drugs and human trafficking as Montenegro, Albania and Albanian-dominated Kosovo.  So they have a long record of being impressively wrong about the effects of intervention and our strategic interest in intervening, but they will continue to make appeals to national self-interest and they are, so it seems to me, in deadly earnest.  

This does require them to broaden the definition of self-interest a little.  This redefinition usually involves a lot of hand-waving about the integrity of the international legal system and the genocide convention and American leadership.  Neocons will be familiar, since they used much of this hand-waving when it came to Iraq, and some interventionists on the right (such as Romney) are beginning to use it with respect to Iran.  The difference between the different kinds of interventionists tends not to be on the level of principle (i.e., never intervene in self-interest vs. only intervene in self-interest), since virtually all interventionists are open to a mix of both self-interested and humanitarian meddling.  The difference is that of judgement about the relative urgency and priority of a given intervention.  We’ll get around to Iraq, seems to have been the thinking back in ’02-’03 with many in this crowd, but we have more pressing things to do right now.  No wonder they lost the debate!  TNR has the dubious distinction of buying into warnings of urgent crisis whenever they are made, so that every crisis under an administration of either party leads to their calls for action.  If someone says there’s a genocide in Kosovo, they believe it, no more questions asked, and demand a start to the bombing.  If someone says there are dangerous weapons programs in Iraq, they believe just like that, and support an invasion.  And so on.  The problem isn’t that liberal interventionists never support wars fought in what they might call the national security interest, but that they support any number of wars according to an extremely distorted and false definition of the national interest.  Then again, that’s pretty much what neoconservatives also do.  Their target lists just happen to be slightly different.