R. Jordan Prescott
House of Marathon
originally posted at House of Marathon and cross-posted at Small Wars Journal with Full Permissions
Last November, a NATO-led multilateral coalition, enabled substantially by American military aerial and naval assets, succeeded in protecting the population of Libya and facilitating the overthrow of its megalomaniacal dictator, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. The Obama Administration decision to establish a no-fly zone in March 2011 and the willingness to subordinate its activities under NATO command provided the capabilities needed for the operation. Although criticized by defenders of congressional prerogatives and observers concerned with the operation’s objectives and costs, the eventual overthrow of the hated Qaddafi regime essentially redeemed the undertaking. Moreover, the success has refurbished the national security credentials of the Democratic Party and has established the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) as a legitimate justification for intervention. When contrasted with the enormous costs associated with the preceding Republican administration’s endeavors in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Democratic liberal approach may emerge as the preferred basis for future overseas interventions. This new competing foreign policy thesis from American liberalism would be welcome if it were not for its unfortunate pedigree. It has undergone an ideologically convenient conversion right out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and has embraced intervention. Lamentably, it has done so on the same questionable premise used to justify its domestic agenda – the purported moral superiority of altruism.
Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad
In Animal Farm, the pig leaders of the farm rebellion decided to summarize the principles of their revolutionary ideology into Seven Commandments, of which two declared:
- Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
- Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
The passage provides a concise metaphor for American liberal foreign policy thinking subsequent to the Vietnam War.
After World War II, Democratic liberalism provided the foundation for American foreign policy during the Cold War between 1945 and 1991. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, applying the lesson of Munich (that accommodation only entices aggression), laid the basis for American internationalism, containment of the Soviet Union, and the championing of liberal democracy worldwide. Under President Eisenhower, Democratic liberalism may have critiqued administration policies, but for their execution, not their content. President John F. Kennedy famously promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Republican conservatism may have emerged the more aggressively anti-communist but, through 1968, Democratic liberalism fully supported the measures undertaken -- including intervention -- to counter the Soviet Union.
Amidst the Vietnam War and the collapse of the Democratic political coalition in 1968, American liberalism fractured between traditional anti-communism and New Left accommodationism. American liberalism remained wedded to expanding welfare and entitlements, but thereafter, instead of containment, Democratic liberalism espoused conciliation with the Soviet Union and retrenchment from overseas commitments.
Prominent liberals began decrying an “imperial presidency” at home and U.S. “imperialism” abroad. New Left radicals extolled Ho Chi Minh and protested servicemembers returning from Vietnam. In 1972, anti-war liberal insurgents thwarted in 1968 finally secured control of the Democratic Party and nominated South Dakota Senator George McGovern, whose foreign policy refrain was “come home America.” In 1977, President James Carter declared the United States was “free of [its] inordinate fear of communism and proceeded to dismantle the intelligence community in response to revelations of its activities abroad.
During subsequent Republican Administrations, leading Democratic liberals thwarted efforts to undermine Soviet adventurism. Democratic liberals denounced President Reagan’s strident rhetoric and vigorously opposed increased military spending and support to anti-communist rebels around the globe. Senator Edward Kennedy reportedly reached out to Soviet Chairman Yuri Andropov with an offer to collaborate to ensure President Ronald Reagan’s re-election effort failed in 1984. The reflexive opposition led Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. Ambassador the United Nations and a former Democrat, to memorably castigate the Democratic Party as the “blame America first” crowd.
Any discussion of committing resources -- or worse, U.S. forces -- was met with vehement opposition and warnings of “another Vietnam.” For Democratic liberalism, the Vietnam Syndrome (an aversion to intervention) superseded the lessons of Munich. In 1991, a majority of Democratic Senators voted against the resolution authorizing President George H.W. Bush to use force against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait.
To paraphrase Orwell’s sheep, Democratic liberals had gone from stalwart anti-communists to ideologues bleating “altruism good, intervention bad.”
Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better
Of course, as readers of Animal Farm well remember, Orwell closed the story by jumping into the future after the revolution has been consolidated. Few animals remembered the core principles and Orwell explained how the pigs took advantage of this situation. Betraying the First and Second Commandments, “[o]ut from the door of the farmhouse came a long file of pigs, all walking on their hind legs. … It was as though the world had turned upside-down. … just at that moment, as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating of ‘Four legs good, two legs better! Four legs good, two legs better! Four legs good, two legs better!’”
American liberalism would have remain marginalized after the stunning victory over Iraq if a rupture had not emerged within American conservatism after the collapse of the USSR. The subsequent debate within the Republican Party over how to approach the post-Cold War era (“a new world order” versus “America First”) contributed to President Bush 41’s failed re-election bid.
The incoming Democratic Clinton Administration preferred to focus on domestic issues and was unprepared for the welter of new international issues. The result was an incoherent approach to foreign policy that led one scholar to liken Clinton’s team to a “little boys’ soccer team... [with] each player chasing the ball.” A new course was eventually set by Madeline Albright, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and the president’s secretary of state during his second term.
Albright was unique among American liberals in that she held to the lesson of Munich and soon signaled a new and unexpected enthusiasm for intervention. With the Vietnam Syndrome dispatched in the sands of Iraq, Albright was free to assiduously advocate the use of military force. She infamously sparred with GEN Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over the use of force on the Balkans peninsula, asking “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for... if we can't use it?”
Albright was contravening twenty-five years of liberal apprehension regarding the use of force, but President William Clinton endorsed her rhetoric. He became an erstwhile interventionist and marked his term with the uses of force in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. President Clinton justified the actions on humanitarian grounds, ranging from famine relief to preventing ethnic cleansing.
Where observers denounced American “hyperpower,” Albright simply retorted America was “indispensable.”
From “altruism good, intervention bad” to “altruism good, altruistic intervention better.”
All Animals Are Equal, But…
The Clinton Administration congratulated itself for substantiating humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, but the operation proceeded without United Nations approval. The circumvention prompted U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to issue a challenge to member states, asking them to define internationally accepted grounds for undertaking such interventions in the future. The Government of Canada responded to the challenge in September 2000 by establishing an independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS).
The subsequent December 2001 report# outlined “the responsibility to protect,” the proposition that “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens … but when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.”
Prevention would be the most important priority: “options should always be exhausted before intervention is contemplated.” But, in the event military intervention is required, the framework would entail a just cause threshold (large scale loss of life), precautionary principles (last resort, proportional means), the right authority (the United Nations Security Council), and maximum coordination with humanitarian organizations.
Issued just after the attacks of September 11, 2001, report authors acknowledged R2P was not conceived with retaliation to terrorism in mind. R2P was conceived “to provid[e] precise guidance for states faced with human protection claims in other states; it has not been framed to guide the policy of states when faced with attack on their own nationals, or the nationals of other states residing within their borders.” [Emphasis added]
This equivalence is the core of R2P – and its most controversial aspect.
In the report authors’ estimation, the dual missions of the United Nations to preserve member states’ sovereignty and to promote the welfare of member states’ citizenry establishes an equivalence between a state’s sovereignty and a citizenry’s sovereignty. “…two notions of sovereignty, one vesting in the state, the second in the people and in individuals.” The former’s failure to uphold or its intent to transgress the latter creates an obligation on another member state to intercede.
This conversion of sovereignty into responsibility mirrors the liberal perception of American domestic affairs.
In classically liberal America (from its founding up until the Great Depression), citizens were indeed sovereign. Under President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the collection of initiatives undertaken to address the Great Depression, liberalism began impinging on the American citizen’s sovereignty, empowering the state to appropriate his or her income and wealth for redistribution to less fortunate citizens. American liberalism justifies this appropriation on the basis of altruism.
Other states tackled the Great Depression by adopting more radically altruistic ideologies -- the government either yoked capital and labor together (fascism) or abolished private capital and labor outright (communism). The results were totalitarianism, police states, international aggression, and crimes against humanity.
America’s saving grace was its reliance on the secret ballot, but the subsequent voting coalition favoring and benefiting from the turn to altruism survived, endured, and flourished. Democracy was enough to ensure altruistic liberalism did not produce the same results as fascism and communism, but Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek identified the thread common to each of them.
Von Hayek explained how each relied on long-term government planning and coordination to achieve altruistic objectives. Invariably, long-term government planning invariably robs the citizens of his or her autonomy. Moreover, the appropriation of an individual’s autonomy via this long-term government planning inevitably induces a “fatal conceit” on the part of government decision-makers. Not only will they plan for the long term, but they will conclude this authority confirms their judgment is inherently superior and justifies even greater authority over the citizen’s life.
In short, the initial objective to better the lives of citizens degenerates into the pursuit of more power at the expense of the citizen’s well-being. Eventually betterment is restricted to that is which attained by government decision-makers and supporting functionaries or those with privileged access to them.
So with altruism at home, so with altruism abroad.
In Animal Farm, Orwell underscores the contemptuous hypocrisy and blatant avarice of such a political elite in the pigs’ re-writing of the Seven Commandments into a single decree:
In the language of R2P: all states are sovereign, but some states are more sovereign than others. Originators of the responsibility to protect concept recognize all states are sovereign, but if another state’s citizenry are to be bettered, then a second state’s sovereignty entails a responsibility to protect and the right to impinge on the first state’s sovereignty.
The experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq have clearly demonstrated that the impulse to improve the welfare of others results in tremendous costs -- politically, economically, morally, and corporeally. Just as the United States concludes a decade of operations attempting to reshape the future of two completely alien sovereign states, R2P would justify and obligate continued commitments.
The impulse to altruism is indeed the “road to serfdom.”
A Responsibility to Protect... Itself
Unopposed, the prevailing liberal Democratic administration has carte blanche to explore and refine the R2P concept.
In October 2011, the Obama Administration informed Congress it had authorized the deployment of approximately 100 U.S. armed forces to support efforts by Uganda to capture or kill the senior leadership of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a resistance group with a long history of atrocities. Despite war-weariness on the part of the American public, liberals are presuming the pursuit of humanitarian ends will mute opposition.
Regardless of the intent, the action reflects a reflexive interventionism on the part of foreign policy decision-makers. More astonishingly, especially in light of prevailing economic and fiscal challenges, the commitments represents an inexplicable readiness to intervene on behalf of foreign populations, while declining to ensure the safety and security of American citizens.
Adam Elkus, a security studies specialist, observed as much in discussing the latest lapse in America’s ability to protect its citizens – the detention of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati in Iran on accusations of espionage. Elkus writes, “why [is the U.S.] apparently powerless to protect its citizens abroad but can protect -- or govern -- foreigners through expeditionary force of arms or whole-of-government.” Elkus additionally notes that, despite decades of bellicose statements and the use of force abroad, the United States lacks credibility when it comes to protecting its citizens.
In reviewing Hekmati’s predicament, Elkus writes approvingly of an approach submitted by Anna Simons of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
In an essay adapted from one of her lectures, Ms. Simons# posits a simpler interpretation of sovereignty whereby states (and not states and citizens) are recognized as the “global unit of account” and the international community has no basis for enforcing accountability. The United States would no longer dictate another state’s form of government or economy and would only intervene in another state’s affair if that state’s conduct enabled or permitted an infringement of American sovereignty.
Simons and her colleagues assert establishing sovereignty as a baseline would simplify decisions regarding the use of force.
While admittedly “harsh,” the approach would be consistent. Adversaries would know American red lines and, with repetition, the approach would attain credibility. Would-be attackers and their enablers would have to consider a credible threat of American retribution. Lastly, by limiting the use of force to the defense of its citizens at home or abroad, the approach could count on unified popular support and might avoid the inevitable domestic divisions arising from recent interventions.
Tellingly, Elkus casts this alternative sovereignty solution as simply “self-help,” the exact opposite of altruism.
As American conservatives wage an energetic battle against altruism in domestic affairs, they should be prepared to do so in the realm of national security as well.