As our little adventure in Libya moves quickly from guns to law books–perhaps sharia law–it’s a good time to look at what has been accurately dubbed liberal interventionism.Being a liberal concoction, it has already had a shinny euphemistic name change to the self-congratulating “smart power,” which reminds one more of a mutated cross between Mike Tyson and Marilyn vos Savant than what it is: just another good excuse for intervening in the affairs of foreign nations without knowing what we’re doing.
Whatever it’s called, it’s typically liberal in that it sounds good on the surface, but once you venture into the weeds it just gets progressively thornier. As do all progressive adventures.
While liberal interventionism is considered the brain storm of British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, the thought first disturbing his sleep in the latter half of the 19th century, we know it here as the initiative President Woodrow Wilson took to engage us in WWI. It was part and parcel of Wilson’s great overarching goal, that of founding the League of Nations, and was the likely reason for his change of heart about entering the war.
Its goal is to fold failing nation states into the realm of successful democratic capitalist states and at the same time to indoctrinate them into the virtues of free markets and one-man-one-vote theology. It’s a seductive proposition. We ride in on white horses to rescue a nation from itself with no ostensible skin in the game other than fulfilling our do-gooder hearts. Of course we make fast new friends and trading partners and expand our corporate reach, which is a very good thing. We did it successfully in Japan and Germany. Aren’t we wonderful, we tell ourselves? Yes, but only when it works. Those countries had been eviscerated by war and were desperate for any new vision of the future. Had the Hari Krishnas stopped by first, they would have got the franchise. Plus both countries already enjoyed many of the fundamental democratic institutions, a prerequisite to their success. Nonetheless, we extrapolated from those experiences and liked what we saw.
So we repeated it in WWII. FDR had his own personal motivations, reelection and the still failing economy. And then we marched into Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. In every one of those countries, with the exception of Vietnam, we still have troops at great expense to ourselves. There’s a value to all that, but also a huge downside with our present economy.
By the time we get to our current wars abroad, Bush, the compassionate conservative, by way of Fukuyama’s End of History had fallen for the Neocons version of liberal interventionism. I fell for it myself, having hitched through the Mideast in the mid-60s and feeling that the Arab Muslims there deserved a break from their downlow lifestyles and demonic leaders. But that’s the problem with compassion. It’s an emotional response and allows our emotions to cloud our minds. Try as we may, and we’ve tried heroically in Iraq and Afghanistan, we still don’t have a clue how to bridge the culture gaps in these very different cultures. We spend huge amounts of our money, sincerely, but continue to fail to grasp the cultural undercurrents that should direct our efforts.
In the real world, the physical world, there’s something called natural consequences. It’s an immutable law of nature. When you screw up big time, you earn the honor of paying for your sins. In the process of paying your well-deserved debts to society or whoever, you learn your lesson; you adjust your thinking to avoid a reoccurrence. When we violate that immutable law by intervening in wildly diverse cultures that we don’t understand, we can’t predict much less direct the outcomes, and that’s asking for trouble. And trouble is likely what we’re going to get in all three of these countries.
It’s high time for us to consider a semi-isolationist moratorium on military adventures abroad while reassessing how and if we want to do them more effectively.
As for Libya, Obama gets zero credit for involving us, as it once again shows how weak and unthinking he is when it comes to foreign affairs. Enough so to allow a radical extremist like Samantha Powers influence his thinking on a global level event with lasting consequences attached. It’s like Obama is saying to Powers’ “theory”: “Hey, cool, sounds good, let’s go for it!” His is a “go for it” diplomacy and a “cool, sounds good” foreign affairs management approach.
Sorry to inform you, Obamageddon, but the world is not your personal video game.