Taking Exception

Not the Way to Intervene

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By Paul J. Saunders
Monday, August 13, 2007

Ivo Daalder and Robert Kagan are frustrated that the United States has not been able to count on the U.N. Security Council to provide legitimacy for American military action, and they want the world's democracies to decide when intervention is appropriate [" The Next Intervention," op-ed, Aug. 6]. But the cure they propose is much worse than the disease -- and it could undermine not only vital U.S. interests but also American efforts to promote freedom.

First, Daalder and Kagan fail to offer a persuasive answer to what they correctly call the "critical question" in winning international legitimacy for military action: who decides. Their answer -- "the world's democracies" -- is shallow. How will the world's democracies decide to endorse American use of force? Not democratically -- that would create a new General Assembly, a U.N. body even less willing to do American bidding than the Security Council.

What they want is for "the United States and its democratic partners in Europe and Asia," and especially "the world's great democratic nations," to decide. But which governments are these? Do they really think that India and Brazil, two great democracies by almost any standard, will energetically back an interventionist American foreign policy, not to mention the active and regular U.S. use of force that Daalder and Kagan advocate? What will be the consequences for America's perceived international legitimacy if they don't?

Daalder and Kagan appear to believe that enlisting a few European allies, and perhaps Japan, to support military action will be enough. This clearly did not work in Iraq and seems extremely unlikely to work in the future, especially if Europe is divided, as seems likely. Outside the United States and Europe, even many democracies would not necessarily welcome what some may see as a new form of colonialist intervention in their regional affairs. The Atlantic community and the "international community" are not identical.

Moreover, trying to create a "Concert of Democracies" inevitably invites a "Concert of Non-Democracies," which could be very damaging to American interests and values.

Consider that in today's Middle East, the United States can largely have its way because there is no comparable alternative external source of support, unlike during the Cold War. Would the Middle East's dictatorships support America's security priorities, and occasionally respond to U.S. pressure to change their domestic practices, if they could count on a coalition of China, Russia and others to make up any marginal losses in their economic relations with the United States? How far would European countries be willing to go to isolate governments that did not cooperate?

China and Russia do not have an easy relationship, and neither dreams of leading a global ideological challenge to America, but Washington could prompt reluctant tactical cooperation between them. The cost to U.S. interests -- from nonproliferation to counterterrorism and other crucial issues -- would be high. Negotiated settlements with North Korea and Iran would be impossible rather than difficult; would America's democratic partners contribute to, or even support, military action?

Nor would the world be safer for democracy. In fact, it would be far harder to promote economic development, political change or human rights in an increasingly divided and unstable world. The great global advance of democracy occurred during the relative peace and prosperity after the end of the Cold War -- not during the struggle between the U.S. and Soviet blocs.

Strangest of all is the assertion that seeking consensus among democracies could be the basis for a new domestic consensus on when military action is appropriate. Daalder and Kagan imply that those elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment who are determined to pursue an interventionist foreign policy -- and it is a bipartisan group, though not necessarily a majority in either party -- should try to persuade a reluctant American public by arguing that others, outside America, would support us. Beyond the fact that the extent of that support is questionable, this argument turns the American foreign policy process upside down. It is the American people who should decide when to use force, through their elected representatives and after an open and honest debate about the U.S. interests and values at stake.

The answer to the problem of the United Nations is not to create something else; it is to use force deliberately, selectively, sparingly and decisively to protect vital U.S. interests and to stop genocide (not civil wars). If America appears to be wise, responsible and unstoppable in its use of force, we will create our own legitimacy.

Democracies and nondemocracies alike will respect U.S. actions, even when it is necessary to act outside the U.N. framework. On the contrary, dividing the world will alienate many current and potential partners without bringing America any new allies -- or energizing the ones we have. And it will serve neither our interests nor our values.

The writer is executive director of the Nixon Center and associate publisher of the National Interest. He was a State Department appointee and senior adviser on global issues from 2003 to 2005.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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