Michael Brendan Dougherty and Daniel Larison go after Matt Yglesias' defense of liberal internationalism, which includes an exercise in special pleading, an attempt to distinguish good liberal interventionism from the bad, neoconservative, Iraq-war starting kind, with hammer and tongs. Interventionism of the calamitous sort is not new with neoconservatives and the Bush administration. Respectively:
What about the Korean War or Vietnam? I suppose these aren’t “Iraq-scale,” being that they are much, much larger and helped to discredit the Truman and Johnson administrations respectively. (Snip) We might also consider the much longer list of recent (smaller than Iraq-scaled) blunders supported by the same establishment: the first Gulf War–the sanctions regime and the decade-long bombing campaign that followed there–Somalia, Haiti, and our intervention against Slobodan Milosevic. Can any of these be judged a success? The Iraq War was relaunched. Somalia saw the humiliation of American forces and taught bin Laden a few lessons. No one can explain what has been accomplished in Port au Prince. And Kosovo is in a state of near anarchy and has been linked to every post-9-11 terrorist attack in Europe. Yet Yglesias has the stones to frame Iraq as an isolated freakout? A one-off after decades of uninterrupted, unimpeachable successes of the establishment.
On neoconservatism, Yglesias knows better. Neoconservatism was not some “fringe right-wing position.” The intellectuals that formed that movement were not gathered around totems of extreme conservatism. No, they leapt forth from the heads of center-left Democrats Scoop Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Neoconservatism is a variant of the same establishment foreign policy that Yglesias claims to champion.
As I noted last week, there is a powerful need among internationalists, whether they are realists or liberal internationalists, to treat the war in Iraq as an entirely radical departure from what the establishment was willing to do before, even though many realists and liberal internationalists (including, well, Yglesias) were perfectly willing to go along with the invasion or at least keep their reservations to themselves. This makes it easier for them to attribute their own blunders to the post-9/11 atmosphere rather than acknowledge something essentially flawed in their assumptions about U.S. interference in other states’ affairs. The “establishment” was on board with the war, or unwilling to stop it, because invading Iraq was not fundamentally different from the other wars that it had endorsed or tacitly accepted. Indeed, the formal case for the war flowed out of the bipartisan consensus in Washington about Iraq that had been established in the early ’90s and had gone largely unchallenged except from the margins of the political spectrum.
All of this, to my mind, is quite right, needing no real elaboration. The foreign policy establishment, in which most adherents of the various 'schools' of thought merely offer dialects of a common interventionist tongue, is incorrigible, and is striving to disown the Iraq misadventure in order to regain the credibility to call for other, future interventions. Burma awaits!
Ross Douthat, responding to Dougherty and Larison, and dismissing all of the discussions of just-war doctrine, neoconservatism, and the liberal tradition, advocates taking the minimalist lesson from the debacle of Iraq:
I don't come away from the events of the last five years convinced that we should never intervene abroad on purely humanitarian grounds, or that we should never go to war without an international body's authorization, or that the whole of American Middle East policy since 1991 (or 1945) has been discredited, or even that we should never launch wars of pre-emption. I come away from them convinced of a point that's simultaneously narrower in scope, but more universal in its application: That whatever theory we take as our guide to international affairs, we need to proceed with greater caution than America displayed in the aftermath of 9/11 about the efficacy of military force, and the costs and consequences of using it.
Douthat's Atlantic blog is a daily stop of mine, and I've even pre-ordered his forthcoming book, so I consider him a valued source of commentary. But this is weak stuff. Thousands of Americans dead, trillions expended or entailed by ongoing commitments, the budget crushed, the dollar annihilated, millions of Iraqi refugees, over 100,000 Iraqis dead, and the lesson to be appropriated is... proceed with greater caution? Not that there are some policy objectives that are simply illicit tout court? Not that hegemonism itself ought to be suspect? Not that, even when the cost/benefit analysis might be positive for us, it might still be wrong to intervene? Any of these conclusions would require genuine soul-searching on the part of the establishment. The admonition to be more careful requires nothing; it enables the establishment to wash its hands of its errors and injustices without owning them as such. It's just weak. If Iraq doesn't demonstrate the folly of imperial politics, then nothing does, and we may as well offer our pinches of incense to the Empire, our wealth to its coffers, and our sons to the sands of Mesopotamia.
As I said, that's just weak stuff.
...Douthat concedes an important point to Michael in his second paragraph. He writes, “unless you’re a very stringent non-interventionist (or a pacifist), no matter what theory of foreign policy you choose, you’ll always be able to find justification within the confines of that theory whenever a particular intervention seems like a good idea.”
Yes, exactly — which is why some of us at TAC (by no means all) counsel “very stringent” non-interventionism. Douthat is correct that whatever the theoretical differences between neoconservatism, liberal internationalism, and a variety of other interventionist perspectives may be, they all give policymakers — specifically, the executive branch — wide discretion for waging war. Stringent noninterventionism and pacifism provide a check against that. Douthat criticizes Michael by saying, “the paleocon lens tends to obscure some very real distinctions between neocons and liberal internationalists,” but Douthat himself acknowledges that, performatively, those “real distinctions” aren’t so real after all.
McCarthy also likens the hope that partisans of the establishment schools of foreign policy will begin behaving responsibly to the hope that, someday, visiting the DMV will be pleasant. Just so.