Interventionism's Realistic Future

Sgt. Brandon Krahmer at a U.S. military base in eastern Kosovo last month.
Sgt. Brandon Krahmer at a U.S. military base in eastern Kosovo last month. (By Visar Kryeziu -- Associated Press)

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By Robert D. Kaplan
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hard-core foreign policy realists (the kind who say this country should rarely intervene again, anywhere) are hoping that in the wake of our comeuppance in Iraq things will be going their way. That is to say, U.S. foreign policy will be defined by an obdurate caution, coupled with a ruthless, almost mathematical application of balance-of-power principles. You'd think -- to hear some of them talk -- that we're about to emulate China, which seeks only energy sources and advantageous trade agreements and cares nothing at all for the moral improvement of regimes in such places as Zimbabwe, Burma and Uzbekistan.

This is nonsense. Our foreign policy is about to experience an adjustment, not a flip-flop. Neither political party will support anything else if it really wants to elect a president in 2008. Just look at the dismay in this country over our failure to intervene in Darfur, even given the burden we already carry in Iraq. To be sure, the recent evidence that our democratic system cannot be violently exported will temper our Wilsonian principles, but it will not bury them. Pure realism -- without a hint of optimism or idealism -- would immobilize our mass immigrant democracy, which has always seen itself as an agent of change.

Iraq will merely close a post-Cold War chapter in American foreign policy, one that began with the Persian Gulf War -- and with Bosnia. After the collapse of communism in 1989, idealism, the export of democracy and humanitarian interventionism were all the rage among journalists and intellectuals -- much as realism, restraint and benign dictatorship are now. Ten years ago Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries less institutionally developed than Iraq were considered prime candidates for liberal change. Back then, people such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker were attacked not just by neoconservatives but by liberal internationalists, too. In those first, heady post-Cold War years, to be called a "realist" was practically an insult.

The Balkan interventions, because they paid strategic dividends, appeared to justify the idealistic missionary approach to foreign policy. The 1995 intervention in Bosnia changed the debate from "Should NATO Exist?" to "Should NATO Expand?" Our 1999 war in Kosovo, as much as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, allowed for the eventual expansion of NATO to the Black Sea. It also led to the toppling of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, without chaos ensuing. Neoconservatives and others who had supported our actions in Bosnia and Kosovo then carried the spirit of this policy to its limits in Iraq.

And so what began in 1995 with a limited air and land campaign in the western, most-developed part of the former Ottoman Empire ended with a mass infantry invasion eight years later in its eastern, least-developed part. Not only was this last intervention far more ambitious than the first, it was also far less competently executed in its occupation phase. Thus it failed.

The lesson is not that we won't intervene again. We will, and often. But we will do so with the caution and hesitation shown in the 1990s and only as part of an authentic coalition. To wit, just as NATO's war in Kosovo had a British face and voice -- that of its spokesman, Jamie Shea -- any intervention in North Korea (should it ever come to that) will put the South Korean military front and center and will have the implicit cooperation of the Chinese army. Otherwise, we won't do it.

The expansion of our military deployments in Africa, as well as the emergence of NATO as a global constabulary force, points to an activist military presence overseas. From Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden -- across the entire Sahara -- Marines and Army Special Forces have been conducting training missions -- not only to field indigenous forces in the hunt for Islamic terrorists but also to professionalize the militaries of fledgling democracies and develop the backbone of an American-advised, pan-African intervention force to handle future Darfurs. The drawdown of our forces in Iraq, no matter how humiliating the circumstances, will eventually free up equipment and manpower for such smaller and less controversial deployments, which will always have a civil affairs element.

NATO is moving on a parallel track. What started after 1989 with train-and-equip missions to reform former Warsaw Pact military forces in Eastern Europe has expanded to the Caucasus and Central Asia under the Partnership for Peace program. NATO's current mission in Afghanistan and its restructuring under Marine Gen. James Jones to a more sea-based, expeditionary force signifies how it will be able to deploy faster and more often to deal with out-of-area emergencies.

Our military and civilian agencies will be expected to deal with many emergencies as we enter an era when more people than ever before will be killed or made homeless by natural disasters as populations rise in environmentally fragile zones. The tsunami rescue effort of 2004-05, led by U.S. Pacific Command, was a curtain raiser for deployments to come.

The debacle in Iraq has reinforced the realist dictum, disparaged by idealists in the 1990s, that the legacies of geography, history and culture really do set limits on what can be accomplished in any given place. But the experience in the Balkans reinforced an idealist dictum that is equally true: One should always work near the limits of what is possible rather than cynically give up on any place. In this decade idealists went too far; in the previous one, it was realists who did not go far enough.

Iraq has relegitimized realism, which is a good thing. But without an idealistic component to our foreign policy, there would be nothing to distinguish us from our competitors. And that, in and of itself, would lead to the decline of American power.

The writer is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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