The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
The Blindness of Interventionism
Published on April 1, 2011

Though the signs were clear from the start of the Libya operation that people hadn’t clearly thought through the consequences of intervention, it took a tweet from Anne-Marie Slaughter (the recently-departed Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and one-time author for our magazine) to crystallize just what a mess we’re really in. She wrote: “To all who represent Libyan opposition. Pics of slapping terrified prisoners on [Anderson Cooper’s AC360 program on CNN] does not reflect values you are fighting for.”

I was struck by more than just the tone (though the thought of one of our doyens of foreign policy presuming to lecture members of a beleaguered militia on how to properly behave is galling enough). It’s that this brief late-night missive captured precisely how liberal interventionists misunderstand reality. I’m not alluding here to the oft-repeated criticism of this intervention which states that we don’t really know anything about these Libyan rebels we’re supporting. Though that argument is indeed valid and should give us pause as we pick our course in this unfortunate war, I’m getting at something more fundamental. Liberal interventionists tragically misunderstand the nature of politics and war, and the consequences of this misunderstanding could be grave and costly.

On March 30, Dr. Slaughter penned a brief article in the New York Review of Books defending President Obama’s conflation of American values and interests as being the only sensible approach in the modern world. The reason, she says, is that the world is no longer merely made up of states, but is rather now composed of societies and governments. Those in favor of a state-centered approach to foreign affairs are in denial of this new reality, she contends. “US foreign policy must change fairly dramatically to prosper in this [new] world,” and Obama’s foray into Libya in support of the aspirations of the Libyan people is a good template for how and when we should intervene.

What is this new organizational paradigm of “societies and governments?” Slaughter provides some comparisons:

In a world of states, geography is still a function of bounded physical borders. In a world of governments and societies, geography includes the unbounded virtual world in which social networks operate despite the efforts of some governments to control them. In a world of states, we look to the distribution of natural resources among them and favor those states that have more. In the world of governments and societies, we must look not only at natural resources but also at the distribution of the wealth they generate. In a world of states, governments can be bribed, coerced, and cajoled into pursuing a desired course of action. In a world of governments and societies, we must take account of the power of citizens to constrain their governments in ways that are directly contrary to our ability to solve global problems.

She seems to be implying that this new paradigm has come about through technological progress—namely through the rise of Twitter and Facebook. Though she doesn’t go so far as to argue that the state-centered model is to be discarded, she cites Hillary Clinton being snubbed by Egyptian youth activists—and “young people now make up 60 percent of the population of the Middle East” she tells us—as a grievous cost of privileging the state-centered approach. By standing on what she thinks is the right side of history in the Libyan war, America is rectifying these mistakes and supporting what is a new global organizing principle of people-powered, accountable governance. These values, she says, are our new interests. Defending them is of paramount importance.

Evidence paints a different picture. Though Facebook and Twitter provide unprecedented opportunities for non-state actors to organize and raise awareness of injustice among the public, the state remains defined by its monopoly over the use of violence. Though the Egyptian and Tunisian episodes occurred (and continue to evolve) without excessive carnage, the unrest in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and of course Libya show that people armed with ideals and values are not sufficient agents of change. Indeed, as an article in the upcoming issue of The American Interest will argue, the reason for the relative success in Tunisia and Egypt had everything to do with the political realities and power relationships within these very different polities, and very little to do with each country’s military recognizing the legitimacy of the people’s grievances. Furthermore, in Egypt, the entrenched power of the army and the superior organization of existing parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood is tempering reform, as evidenced by the carefully choreographed constitutional referendum of March 22. Twitter and Facebook are, to be sure, unprecedentedly powerful tools for organization, but they do not change the primordial, sharp-elbowed nature of politics.

The state-centered approach is not blind to the new popular internet-fueled movements and political realities in the Middle East, but it does question the likelihood of their success. (A survey of the recent “color” revolutions, also forthcoming in our pages, paints a mixed picture.) It posits that the deciding factor in the early days of these Middle Eastern revolutions is not primarily the values being fought for, but violence—whether, and how decisively, it is used. The Libyans, accustomed to 40-odd years of brutal rule by Qaddafi, understood this all too well and chose to respond in kind. What may have started as a protest for democratic change is now very much a war over the state itself. The discussion is no longer about values, but over power, territory, and sovereignty.

Slaughter’s tweet in particular is emblematic of a worldview blind to all of this. And insofar as decision-makers within the Obama Administration persist in sharing Slaughter’s blind spots, we may be in for even more perverse outcomes before this is all said and done. A NATO spokesperson announced that if the rebels were to shell cities in trying to unseat Qaddafi, they too will be bombed, as the UN resolution “applies to both sides.” If our imperfect proxies do not live up to the standards we have set for them in their fight against a dictator we seem to want unseated, some are sure to end up in the dock at the Hague, right next to Qaddafi and his sons. These are the paradoxical wages of an intervention focused on values rather than interests, and on ideals rather than concrete goals.

None of this is to argue that we should applaud the rebels if they brutalize their way to Tripoli, nor to mythologize this ragtag group as lightly-armed Davids in a fight with their Goliath in the desert. On the contrary, it’s an argument for staying out of the whole mess, as civil wars and revolutions tend to beget this kind of stuff. Now that we’re in well past our knees, the best outcome would be for Qaddafi to be forced out somehow, as the Administration seems to hope will come to pass. But it would surely be compounding the mistake of entering this war in the first place if our role devolves to playing human rights referee in what could be an increasingly brutal and drawn out conflict.

I argued in my previous post that liberal interventionists systematically ignore political realities and privilege moral concerns in making their decisions. It may be closer to the truth to say that they just don’t understand reality very well at all, and that this often results in a morally muddled, deplorable outcome.