Foreign Policy

Obama's Wars

Liberal interventionism makes a comeback

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Six years ago, Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama walked onstage at Chicago's Richard J. Daley Plaza and launched his national political career. "Although this has been billed as an antiwar rally," the Chicago Democrat said to the assembled, "I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances." He reminded the crowd of his grandfather's service in World War II. He admitted that "the world would be better off without" Saddam Hussein. "What I am opposed to," he said, "is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats."

It was pure red meat, and the anti-Bush, anti-neoconservative crowd ate up every scrap. As Obama navigated a wide-open Democratic primary, he repeatedly pointed to this speech as proof of his fidelity on the war. "It was just, well, a well-constructed speech," the candidate later told his biographer David Mendell. "In some ways, it was not a typical anti-war speech."

This is true. It wasn't a blanket anti-war speech, even though it helped Obama win a U.S. Senate seat and then a presidential nomination through the enthusiasm of anti-war voters. Obama has attracted support not just from the left but also from the traditionalist right and the libertarian sphere on the strength of his early and firm opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Some of those voters have the impression that an Obama vote is a vote against the paradigm of global intervention and preemptive war.

They are wrong. Obama believes all of what he said six years ago in Chicago. He has called for, or retroactively endorsed, interventions in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Sudan. He has advocated a humanitarian-based foreign policy for his entire public career. Since coming to the U.S. Senate in 2005, he has built up a brain trust of academics and ex-Clintonites who, like him, challenge the logic of the Iraq war but not the logic of wars like Iraq. John McCain looks at American military power and sees a way to "roll back" rogue states. Obama looks at American military power and sees a way to solve international and intranational conflict, regardless of the conflict's immediate impact on national security. McCain seeks to aggressively confront imminent threats. Obama wants to do the same, while forestalling threats of tomorrow with just as much military vigor.

Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the center-left New American Foundation, has watched with mounting disappointment as Obama clarifies his stance on foreign interventions. "He's not the Obama we thought he was," Clemons says.

Clemons, not alone among liberal foreign policy analysts, believes Obama listens to two groups of experts: liberal interventionists and "progressive realists." The latter group, rattled by the Iraq war, agrees with one of Obama's most traditional homilies from his memoir The Audacity of Hope: "There are few examples in history in which the freedom men and women crave is delivered through outside intervention." But statements like that are not at the heart of Barack Obama's foreign policy. Liberal interventionism is.

It's true Obama doesn't have a long record of foreign policy stances. "He's not fully formed," argues the conservative military historian (and Obama supporter) Andrew Bacevich. "The paper trail is thin," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Nonetheless, the candidate's views are not hard to discern. He believes the United States makes itself safer by promoting "dignity" in other nations through diplomacy and foreign aid. He also believes crumbling societies and failed regimes such as Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe must be confronted by the international community, including the United States, before they ignite and become threats. And while he sees Iraq as a "dumb war," he's game for smart warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's views started to crystallize when he came to Washington. The new senator fished around for foreign policy talent and scheduled a brief dinner with Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the author of the 2002 book "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. The dinner went on for hours. Soon Power was taking a weekly shuttle from Boston to Washington to tutor Obama on foreign policy.

Power believes the United States creates long-term problems when it fails to intervene in failing states or to protect threatened populations. "Security for Americans at home and abroad is contingent on international stability," she writes in "A Problem from Hell", "and there is perhaps no greater source of havoc than a group of well-armed extremists bent on wiping out a people on ethnic, national, or religious grounds." That is what Obama now believes. In May 2006, he co-sponsored an amendment to an emergency Iraq and Afghanistan funding bill that added $60 million for U.N. peacekeeping efforts in Darfur. At the same time he was writing The Audacity of Hope, where he reiterated the reasons for rescuing states from failure. "If moral claims are insufficient for us to act as a continent implodes," Obama wrote, "there are certainly instrumental reasons why the United States and its allies should care about failed states."

Obama's advisers don't pretend that their candidate is moving very far from the legacy of Bill Clinton—a legacy of humanitarian interventionism that provided some of the moral and legal justifications for Iraq. The problems of this decade, in their view, came because the Bush administration looked at unilateral action as a first course of action and multilateralism as a patina, gathering allies after military decisions had already been made. That's the reverse of what Obama says he wants: multilateralism first and unilateralism as a last resort.

In the summer of 2007, Obama voiced support for the use of unilateral tactical strikes in Pakistan if the country's government was unwilling or unable to go after terrorists. The resulting backlash from Republicans, fellow Democrats, and pundits was one of the reasons Obama scheduled an October speech at Chicago's DePaul University to defend his foreign policy. "We cannot—we must not—let the promotion of our values be a casualty of the Iraq war," he said.

Anti-interventionists such as Bacevich say the prospective president may yet help end the past two presidents' legacy of intervention. "The idea is not that Obama is some kind of closet conservative," says Bacevich. If elected, "this liberal Democrat has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq," and "if history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war."

But it will not discredit all war, at least not for Obama. The senator believes in humanitarian intervention so deeply that he's already blundered by interfering in the affairs of troubled states. Two years ago, on his first senatorial visit to Kenya, his father's birthplace, Obama delivered a speech at the University of Nairobi that blistered the country's rulers for corruption. Graft, Obama said, is "a crisis that's robbing an honest people of opportunities they have fought for." The speech emboldened the country's opposition, which nearly won the 2007 elections. When reformers didn't win and rioting voters cried theft, Obama begged for calm. "Despite irregularities in the vote tabulation," he said, now is not the time to throw that strong democracy away."

There was a lesson in this, but there was no sign that Obama had learned it: If McCain-style neoconservatism can cause blowback, so can wide-ranging liberal interventionism. The two candidates have a rigidity to their worldviews that's unlike anything we saw from the easily led George W. Bush or the desperate-to-look-tough John Kerry. Obama has taken what he likes from Clinton's brain trust and welded it to his own vision of intervention. Plenty of likeminded liberals agreed with Obama about the Iraq war—that it was an aberration, an unusually bad war botched by a Republican president. They may not necessarily share his views about the next war.

David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.