"Liberal interventionists are just 'kinder, gentler' neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionists on steroids," political scientist and blogger Stephen M. Walt, commenting on calls for U.S. involvement in Libya, asserted recently on this website, echoing a false equivalence that has sadly become a common conceit among foreign-policy thinkers. It was inevitable that pundits would compare the invasion of Iraq (an idea promoted by neoconservatives) to the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya (an idea promoted by liberal interventionists). Yet obscuring the difference between these two schools of thought threatens more than the vanity of a group of academics: It places the coherence and stability of the United States' long-term grand strategy in jeopardy.
While Walt, a self-identified "realist," develops a more sophisticated version of this false equivalence, there are, of course, obvious fundamental differences between neocons' triumphal nationalism and liberals' conviction that America can best advance its interests and values in cooperation with other democracies. Walt concedes the distinction, only to accuse liberals of being more cunning than neocons about concealing their will to power: "[T]he former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance."
In Walt's estimation, intervention is intervention, no matter the avowed
motives behind a given mission, or the various circumstances that can justify
the use of force. Because George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each initiated a
military action, it follows for Walt that neocons and "liberal
interventionists" see the world much the same way.
This is bunk. Traumatized by U.S. blunders in Iraq, realists now misapply that war's lessons to Obama's decision to join international efforts to protect Libyans from the wrath of a mad dictator. While the president is being attacked by everyone from John Boehner to Dennis Kucinich, it is critical to set the record straight.
Because Walt uses the terms "liberal interventionist" or "liberal hawk" pejoratively, I'll refer to "progressive internationalism" instead. Progressive internationalists aren't hard-core lefties, but rather progressives in the original sense of the word: pragmatic liberals. We are ideological moderates rooted in classically liberal understandings of individual liberty and equality of opportunity -- at home and abroad -- who believe the world's problems should be solved through tough-minded diplomacy and negotiation, whenever possible.
Further, the terms "hawk" or "interventionist" imply an overreliance on the military. Walt accuses both neocons and progressive internationalists of looking at every problem as a nail to be pounded by the hammer of U.S. military might. While progressive internationalists certainly support a strong military as the bedrock of America's foreign policy, they also know that international affairs in the 21st century seldom present black-and-white binary decisions of the sort that Bush mistakenly sought to resolve with a good whack.
This no doubt brings to mind Iraq,
and I cannot go further without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Yes,
many progressive internationalists did support the decision to invade Iraq. (In 2003,
I was a civilian counterterrorism analyst at the Department of Defense and did
not take a public position on that action.) In hindsight, I believe
constructive critique of my colleagues is warranted and they have learned much
wake. The only point I offer in their defense is this: It's just hard to
imagine that an Al Gore administration -- which would have been stocked full of
progressive internationalists -- would have ginned up that ideological charge
Progressive internationalists recognize that U.S. foreign policy is now a holistic enterprise that must first summon all sources of national power to deal with what goes on within states as well as between them -- direct and multilateral diplomacy, development aid to build infrastructure and civil society, trade to promote growth, intelligence collection, and law enforcement, to name a few -- and only then turn to force as the final guarantor of peace and stability.
Neocons, however, disdain multilateral diplomacy and overestimate the efficacy of military force. Their lopsided preoccupation with "hard power" creates an imposing facade of strength, but in fact saps the economic, political, and moral sources of American influence. By overspending on the military and allowing the other levers of American power to atrophy, neocons misallocate precious U.S. national resources in two ways -- leaving the United States with too little of the "smart power" capacities desperately needed in war zones like Afghanistan and an overabundance of "hard power" capacities it will never use. The trick is to carefully cultivate both, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have championed since Obama took power.