The Anti-Imperialist Left Strikes

While I don’t like Peter Beinart, that’s mostly because I resent that myopic liberal hawks like him, who see a threat where none exists, have hijacked the liberal internationalist movement. See Andrew O’Hehir for more on that. I don’t like Chuck Peña for totally different reasons. It’s because he despises liberal internationalism in general:

In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Beinart — former editor of The New Republic, who has declared that only liberals can win the war on terror (the self-proclaimed subtitle of his new book) — offers up a weak mea culpa for “mistakenly” backing the Iraq war but lauds President Clinton’s “multilateral war to prevent the neo-fascist Slobodan Milosevic from cleansing ethnic Albanians from their homes.” What he conveniently ignores is that Clinton’s war in the Balkans was no different than the Bush administration’s so-called unilateral invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Both were military actions against sovereign states conducted without the formal approval of the UN Security Council and neither represented an imminent threat to U.S. security — and both were rationalized on humanitarian grounds. As long as liberals like Beinart cannot fathom that liberal internationalism (or what he calls anti-totalitarian liberalism) is fundamentally the same thing as neoconservatism as implemented by the Bush administration, liberals cannot hope to fashion together a policy and strategy to win the war on terror.

Neoconservatives and liberal internationalists agree on exactly two things: (a) democracy and human rights are probably good and (b) America should probably do something to advance them. That’s where the similarities end. Neoconservatives disdain alliances, don’t care for diplomacy or treaties, and are fine with overthrowing states and building nothing in their place. Liberal internationalists always work multilaterally, use diplomacy and negotiations before forces, and think that limited wars, like those in Bosnia and Kosovo, are more successful humanitarian enterprises that regime changes.
This shows what’s different between Iraq and Kosovo. Kosovo was conducted under NATO, which, while not the UN, was a legitimate international authority. There was a true alliance running the operation. Also, the goal, ending the genocide in Kosovo, was very limited and achievable. And, indeed, it was achieved quickly, and with no lost American troops. Iraq was conducted by a coalition in name only, without any international body endorsing it, and had a goal (disarming Saddam) that was both attainable through diplomacy and far too expensive to do through military operation.
Peña may be right. This may just be a difference of tactics. But tactics matter. The key difference between neoconservatives and liberal internationalists is that while both want American power to be used for liberal ideals, liberal internationalists do it right, while neoconservatives just don’t.

1 thought on “The Anti-Imperialist Left Strikes

  1. I certainly agree with your real point that Kosovo was a competent operation (that did in fact contribute to regime change), while Iraq is catastrophically incompetent. But I am not convinced by the way that you describe the distinction in terms of ideology. I know that it isn’t your idea to say, liberal internationalists this, neoconservatives that. Rather, I have the feeling that this ideological map is somewhat artificial and ex post facto.
    Certainly a lot of Americans think that the United States is all but omnipotent, at least when it works for a just cause such as democracy. Neoconservatism is a complicated description for this mode of thought; I might just call it “naive nationalism”. Or maybe just naivete, period.
    In fact, the Kosovo operation also only had weak international backing. NATO supported it, of course, but the United Nations did not. A key difference is that the operation was limited. But then, the Republican nationalists also thought that the Iraq would be limited. They were simply wrong. Now they trudge on, more out of sheer inflexibility than any real argument.
    In the end I have trouble making any clean distinction between “neoconservatism” and “liberal internationalism” in this context other than that one camp is right and the other camp is wrong. That’s not particularly fair as a definition. I would just say that these Republican nationalists, or neoconservatives or whatever they should be called, have cast their lot with a single disastrous decision, regardless of their a priori ideology.
    I agree that Chuck Pena’s thinking is just as inflexible as that of the nationalists. In his defense, he isn’t pushing for an unwinnable war.

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