The progressive’s paradox

Can left-wing ideologies ever co-exist comfortably with military intervention? U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades has failed to align squarely with the two major domestic political parties — is the liberal/conservative distinction here a myth?

By: /
June 7, 2016
A U.S. soldier is seen through a night vision device as he takes position during a search mission in the Sunni neighbourhood of Arab Jabour in south Baghdad, October 18, 2007. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Discussions about ideological cleavages in U.S. foreign policy—especially regarding military intervention—often lean on shopworn, vague and occasionally specious taxonomies. In the most common account, the world is neatly divided between realists and idealists, or interventionists and isolationists, or hawks and doves. These labels provide a rough template for understanding diverging ideas about foreign policy, but they also fail to explain the unwieldy plurality of views on intervention that exist in the real world, and how these are mediated by the two-party system in the United States. 

How, for example, can we account for the affinity between neoconservatives (associated with the right, by way of the far left) and liberal interventionists (associated with the Democratic Party, if not the left per se); or between small-government civil libertarians (in publications like Reason and The American Conservative) and anti-imperialist leftists (in publications like Harper’s, Dissent, or Jacobin) when critiquing the Obama administration’s drone policy, and the war on terror more generally? How should we think about what a “liberal” or “conservative” foreign policy might look like, when there is a remarkable deference to executive authority on security issues by putatively liberal and conservative legislators alike?

The widespread orthodoxies about domestic issues—and the neat demarcations they provide between left and right—simply do not exist at the level of foreign policy.

In no other domain, for instance, could two officials with broadly similar worldviews—such as Henry Kissinger (under Nixon and Ford) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (under Carter)—who held the same position (National Security Advisor) in successive administrations, be identified with such antithetical presidencies, and opposing partisan affilliations.

All this imprecision leaves us “in a bad way,” as George Orwell said about the English language in general, and political writing in particular. In some cases, we don’t even possess basic definitional clarity about what a particular epithet refers to; terms like “neoconservative” are so overburdened with connotations that their use is rendered maddeningly vague. (A few generations earlier, Orwell observed the same swirl around the term “fascist,” which was thrown around with accusatory abandon.) The use of these terms often reveals more about a speaker or writer’s prejudices than the person or event being referenced.

But even if public discourse about U.S. foreign policy—and who sits where on the ideological spectrum—is both confused and confusing, the imperfect fit between intellectual proclivity and party affiliation has some arguably positive effects. Internal plurality within the parties can be healthy, since it fosters precisely the kind of deliberative and coalition-building skills necessary for the political compromises required at the national level. But, more importantly, it also creates cross-party affinities that strengthen consensus around, and lend legitimacy to, political processes and bodies.

In a time of extreme domestic political polarization, and the whittling away of norms surrounding U.S. politics, the unusual right-left alliances exhibited on foreign policy issues help shore up our increasingly brittle institutions. This is still the case when these alliances catalyze some of the country’s most destructive tendencies, such as its militaristic streak. For better and for worse, then, cross-party ideological plurality on foreign policy helps stabilize the American political system.

But coalitions change over time, and there are moments in history that rearrange ideological fault lines, and often in unpredictable ways. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 altered the structure of the international system, and with it, bipartisan consensus about the paramount objective of U.S. foreign policy: the containment (and sometimes more aggressively, rollback) of communism.

The last quarter century has forced intellectuals and policy-makers in the United States, especially on the left, to rethink Cold War assumptions about the proper uses of, and scope for, military force in international affairs. Other states, of course, engaged in their own reappraisals, but given the U.S.’s economic and military preponderance—and its ability to create “facts on the ground”—no other country gained so much latitude, so rapidly, in projecting its military power abroad. 

From the Gulf War to Kosovo: A deep divide over the use of force

Hubris during the immediate post-Cold War period made triumphalist readings of history vogue. In a September 1990 address to Congress, George H.W. Bush envisioned a “new world order” where states would find common cause around the goals of  “peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” (In a foreshadowing of the next two decades of U.S. military intervention, this lofty rhetoric was immediately followed by an ultimatum for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.)

Around the same time, Francis Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian The End of History and the Last Man provided intellectual justification for a prevailing sentiment—that liberal democracy was the highest and most complete form of government, and that the U.S. was the vanguard state tasked with leading this revolutionary shift in mankind’s development. (“At last, self-congratulation raised to the status of philosophy!,” wrote Christopher Hitchens at the time.)

The Gulf War tested the Cold War consensus on security that bonded segments of both parties together, as well as the coherence and influence of the anti-war left. Because the war in Iraq in 1991 was prosecuted so quickly and successfully, and given breathless television news coverage (especially on CNN, which was then in its infancy), many forget the extent and strength of opposition to the conflict at the time.

George H.W. Bush was eventually granted Congressional authorization—the broadest since the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964—to use force to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s occupying army from Kuwait, but not before an acrimonious debate took place in Congress over the strategic, fiscal and ethical ramifications of the war, and the aims of U.S. foreign policy more generally.

The Democrats, who held a majority in both houses of Congress at the time, were particularly divided. Vietnam (and the spectre of dead American soldiers) loomed large over the debate, as did pragmatic concerns about whether to exhaust nonmilitary options—particularly sanctions—before turning to an invasion of Iraq. But there was little debate over the appropriateness of U.S. leadership on the matter. Iraq was the undisputed aggressor in the conflict, and wars of territorial expansion are manifestly illegal under international law.

"Coalitions change over time, and there are moments in history that rearrange ideological fault lines."

The question should not have been (and was not) whether there was just cause for war, but whether it was the U.S.’s place to prosecute it, and to what end, assuming that all other avenues for resolution had been attempted. (Indeed, by some measures, the U.S. was uniquely ill positioned to lead this anti-Saddam coalition: the country was an enthusiastic supporter of Iraq during its gruesome war against Iran from 1980-1988.)

Liberals mostly held firm in opposition to the war, but—in a recurring dynamic in American politics—this did not translate into a Congressional majority, even in a Democratic Congress. Eighty-six Democrats voted for the resolution in the House; 10 Democratic Senators did as well. Two Republican joined 45 Democratic Senators in voting against the resolution. In the House, only three Republicans voted against the measure.

The vote laid bare some of the tensions within the Democratic caucus, which would be rent apart entirely during the realignment of 1994, when the Southern wing of the party finally expired after a 30-year-long death rattle. Seven out of 10 Democratic Senators who voted for the war were from the South. Most of the rest, in the House and the Senate, were from the “Scoop Jackson” wing of the party—that is, liberal on social issues, and aggressive (or hawkish) on military matters. Many were also Jewish, and spurred to action by the threats levied against Israel by Iraq. (Unlike the Southerners, this pro-interventionist group has largely remained within the Democratic Party.) 

Whether out of deference to a Republican executive on military matters, or to exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam, or to deter other states from waging wars of territorial expansion, or to secure U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, conservatives largely fell in lock-step on the Gulf War. While “national interest” explanations for foreign policy decisions often approach tautology, there is a kind of elegance to framing national security objectives in this way: if the U.S. is the sole remaining superpower in a post-Cold War environment, and if a belligerent state (in this case Iraq) represents a revisionist threat to the pacific U.S. management of this order, then corrective military action can be justified, pretty much anywhere, at any time. The national interest is thereby utterly globalized. It is expansive enough to explain away any decision that a state might make, and therein lies precisely the danger of this kind of thinking. 

Such clarity (or simple-mindedness, take your pick) has not been the hallmark of the American left, or the wider liberal intelligentsia and policy-making community. Some liberals have a hegemonic view of American interests, but not all do. Many leftists are deeply suspicious of the projection of American military and economic power abroad. Enthusiasm for America’s unique meliorist project (another form of exceptionalism)—dubbed “Trans-national America” by the writer Randolph Bourne in The Atlantic in 1916—has often translated into a corresponding skepticism about the use of force abroad, even when the motives are supposedly altruistic. (Bourne again: “International politics is a ‘power politics’ because it is a relation of states and that is what states infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war.”)

These tensions on the left—between the moral burdens of global leadership and the rise of political crises conceived of as “humanitarian disasters” on the one hand; and suspicions about mixed motives in the application of military power abroad and the corrosive effect repeated interventions may have on democratic institutions at home, on the other—became increasingly fraught in the 1990s. And while some conservatives, out of disdain for the Clinton administration, or professed fiscal concerns, or the sense that any intervention labeled “humanitarian” had to fall ipso facto outside of the national interest, were unenthusiastic about Clinton’s use of force in Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia and especially Kosovo, the harshest disagreements about foreign policy objectives during this time often took place within the left-liberal intelligentsia.

For liberal interventionists such as Samantha Power and Michael Ignatieff, the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, largely ignored by the Clinton administration, cast a long shadow over debates about whether moral imperatives should outweigh pragmatic or realpolitik considerations. Consider Ignatieff’s defence of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq: “the war may be bloody, the peace may be chaotic and what might be good in the long run for Iraqis might not be so good for Americans. Success in Iraq might win America friends or it might increase the anger much of the Muslim world feels toward this country [emphasis added].” This statement contains an explicit disavowal of realist concerns, a good-intentioned (but ultimately naïve, in my view) belief in the possibility of altruism as the guiding force in foreign policy.

Disgust over official passivity in Rwanda turned the collective lamentation of “Never Again!” from a dirge to a battle cry, and would influence at least a plurality of liberal American intellectuals, and an even larger percentage of liberal lawmakers and policy-makers, and to support similar interventions, in the future. The NATO campaign in Kosovo against Serbian forces in 1999 (supported by 42 out of 45 Democratic Senators at the time), and the 2011 U.S.-led bombing of Qaddafi loyalists in Libya (notably lobbied for by Samantha Power herself, who was then a staffer at the National Security Council), can be directly tied to liberal arguments about great power responsibility, couched since 2005 in the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect.”

Even if, in the 1990s, some liberals became more comfortable with the projection of U.S. power abroad—if only for humanitarian ends, and not in the “mere” service of the national interest—the moral clarity professed by interventionists did not arguably correspond with legal realities. Despite ongoing efforts from proponents of R2P, there is no explicit right to humanitarian intervention under international law; the only way such action is legally permissible is if the UN Security Council deems a conflict a threat to international peace and security. But there are obviously situations—such as Kosovo—where great power dynamics on the Council prevent such consensus from occurring, even when military action may be warranted. These tensions or contradictions led to some tortured forms of legal reasoning, the most infamous of which, by the Independent International Commission on Kosovo (whose committee members included Ignatieff, Martha Minow and Richard Goldstone), pronounced the NATO intervention “illegal but legitimate.”

The 2003 Iraq Invasion: Liberal support for a military disaster

The legal and moral ambiguities present during the 1999 NATO campaign in Kosovo were also evident, in much starker terms, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. The war was an utterly schismatic event for liberal and left-leaning policy-makers and intellectuals in the United States, exposing fissures within these communities that remain open to the present day. Even though Democrats—again—possessed a majority in the Senate, 29 Democratic Senators voted to invade Iraq. (Twenty-one Democrats and one Independent voted in opposition.) Hillary Clinton’s vote in favour of the war may have cost her the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, and still helps drive opposition to her candidacy in 2016. The failure of Democratic lawmakers to represent the fervid anti-war sentiment of many of their supporters led to widespread revulsion and dissociation from the party.

"There has been precious little accountability for those who lent their credibility to the greatest disaster in U.S. foreign policy in decades."

The liberal intelligentsia also engaged in open warfare with itself over the issue. Christopher Hitchens, who had long since abandoned his youthful Trotskyism, vociferously supported the war on humanitarian grounds, which led to his rupture with The Nation, where he had long been a columnist. Among the left-leaning journals of ideas, and in a neat historical parallel to its position during World War I, the New Republic became most prominently associated with support for the war, with Leon Wieseltier, Jonathan Chait and Peter Beinart, among others, making the liberal case for intervention. (Beinart, like many other prominent left-leaning writers, has since recanted his position, even releasing a book on hubris in American foreign policy entitled The Icarus Syndrome.) In addition to alienating many bien-pensant liberals who were otherwise ideologically sympathetic to the New Republic, pro-war writing there decimated the magazine’s subscriber base, which—in contradistinction to other left-wing publications, which thrived during the Bush years—dropped steeply after 2003, never to return to the pre-George W. Bush era.

Pity the New Republic, because all the imprecations heaped upon it—and its role as scapegoat for all that was ideologically bankrupt about liberal interventionism—has scrubbed clean the memory of just how widespread support for the war was within prominent liberal circles, especially on the Eastern Seaboard. At the New Yorker, David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg and George Packer all supported the war. So did Thomas Friedman (to say nothing of Judith Miller) at the New York Times, Richard Cohen at the Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria at Newsweek and Andrew Sullivan at Time, among many others across the elite liberal firmament. There has been precious little accountability for such individuals, who lent their credibility, and the prestige of their institutions, to the greatest disaster in U.S. foreign policy in decades.

 It is unseemly to gloat about being correct about a disaster, and publications like the New York Review of Books and The Nation, which were almost uniformly opposed to the war, have perhaps not been given the credit they deserve for their clarity of vision. But revisiting such writing about the war and its aftermath, no matter how prescient, is a deeply dispiriting experience. Take the following passage by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books in September 2003:

The irony, nearly six months after the US launched this war, is that while Saddam Hussein has been unseated, the threat that Iraq posed to the Gulf has not been removed. Indeed, it may be that the United States, with its overwhelming military power, has succeeded only in transforming an eventual and speculative threat into a concrete and immediate one. [emphasis added]

This is bitterly ironic indeed, given that in 2016 large swaths of northern and western Iraq, including the country’s second-largest city, Mosul, are under occupation of the Islamic State, a transnational Islamist terrorist army composed of fanatics from across the Levant and Maghreb (and Europe and North America), as well as former high-ranking military officials from Baathist Iraq. Whatever threat Saddam may have posed to U.S. interests (minor, in my estimation, and deterrable—as states are), it pales in comparison to that posed by the Islamic State, which is the direct descendent of Al-Qaeda in Iraq—a group that arose directly out of the ashes of the U.S. invasion. Proponents of the Iraq War need to accept indirect intellectual responsibility for the rise of ISIS, too.

The Obama administration compensated for this perceived swing toward excessive unilateral action abroad, and the backlash it engendered in many liberal circles (including by many former supporters of the Iraq War, who were chastened by the experience), by self-consciously employing less obtrusive uses of force. Whether legal or not under international law, or proportionate, or ultimately counterproductive, the sharp uptick in drone attacks under Obama, especially between 2009 and 2012, was an attempt to treat the threat of terrorism more as an intelligence or police action (albeit one geared toward assassination) than as a problem to be solved through large-scale intervention.

As Obama himself says, his views on the limits of U.S. power, which Jeffrey Goldberg repeatedly (and a bit tendentiously) calls “fatalistic” in “The Obama Doctrine,” Goldberg’s April 2016 piece in The Atlantic, were what drove Obama to reconsider attacking Syria in 2013. Indeed, in the same piece, Obama admits that he believes that the greatest foreign policy mistake of his presidency was his decision to intervene in Libya. Since Qaddafi’s death, that country has spiraled into chaos and warlordism, with a significant swath of it, centred on the city of Sirte, controlled by the Islamic State. It is yet another dolorous example of an American president employing overwhelming air and naval power to achieve U.S. military objectives, but being ultimately unable or unwilling to commit the necessary resources—and that means occupation and massive reconstruction—to win the peace. 

Visions for a post-Obama world

With the memory of Iraq fading, and the disaster in Libya largely overlooked in the U.S. media, and a pressing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria—where over 300,000 have been killed since 201l—the relative circumspection of the Obama years will soon fade. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was among the strongest proponents of the Libya intervention within the Obama administration. A Clinton II foreign policy will almost certainly be more bellicose than Obama’s, a return to a hawkish consensus that will delight powerful­ constituencies in both parties.

Things are significantly direr on the other side of the aisle. The prospect of a Trump presidency has led to some speculation that, on foreign affairs at least, Trump might govern to Hillary’s left. This is laughable. The post-World War II security architecture, including NATO, perpetually requires U.S. leadership. It may be financially burdensome, but as long as U.S. predominance worldwide is a bipartisan objective, that is our pound of flesh. Trump, a bully to his core, simply wants hegemony on the cheap—but he wants it nonetheless, and he will ruthlessly pursue it. His is an equally belligerent and incoherent approach to foreign policy; whatever it is, it is certainly not “isolationist,” and any hope that his foreign policy might provide a silver lining to his aggressive white nationalism domestically is, quite frankly, deluded.

"A Clinton II foreign policy will almost certainly be more bellicose than Obama’s."

The future for a leftist or liberal foreign policy is murky. Both a Clinton II or Trump administration will be more aggressive than Obama in their pursuit of perceived U.S. interests abroad—more capacious in their definition of the national interest, and, in Hillary’s case, more inclined toward applying American military power for humanitarian ends. For many liberal interventionists, the road to Baghdad was paved with good intentions. And why should the one leading to Damascus be any different? We might be driven there by the durable sense of our own innate goodness, which has proven impenetrable to the reality of the knock-on effects of our military adventurism abroad.

The danger for the American left is twofold. On the one hand, the near-universal acceptance of human rights discourse, and recent popularizing of the notion that state sovereignty is a conditional—not absolute—right that depends on a regime’s treatment of its own people, provides a new set of moral (and perhaps legal) rationales for powerful states to intervene in others’ affairs. This might be to the good; it might even save some lives. But it necessarily expands the accepted scope for violence in the international sphere. Skepticism on the part of the left is essential here. When it comes to the use of force, motives on the part of states are often mixed—at best. On the other hand, if the lessons of Iraq are overlearned, and the left begins to view all applications of force other than self-defence as illegitimate, it risks abdicating its moral claim to certain values that—if not universal and eternal—are nevertheless praiseworthy parts of its intellectual heritage. The problem is that there is no set of rules or propositions that can clarify if, when and how to intervene in a particular conflict or disaster. Ironically, one of the only universal truths about politics is its irreducible specificity. And this requires a mastery of contextual reasoning, not deductions from ideological premises.

Hannah Arendt once observed, with her characteristic insight, that “the practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.” Obama’s partial conversion to this view, and the resulting pivot in U.S. foreign policy, will not, I fear, survive his presidency. Prudence is neither a uniquely liberal nor conservative virtue, nor is aggression or intemperance solely a left-wing or right-wing vice. The ubiquity of the latter makes possession of the first, rare to begin with, all the more precious. If—if—a leftist foreign policy exists in the United States, it too will suffer in a post-Obama world.