The Tragic Death of Enlightened Interventionism

Consider it a sign of the times: A senior Democrat calls for committing American troops to a new theater of conflict, and the news causes only the gentlest of ripples.

The Democrat in question was Senator Joe Biden, and the benighted land was Darfur.

 “I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it, and use it now,” Mr. Biden said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday.

Lest anyone miss the point, Mr. Biden added a few moments later: “If the President were asking me, I would use American force now. But that’s me.”

Those last three words, hovering somewhere between righteous anger and dry disappointment, pointed to what Mr. Biden and everyone else knows: The chances of imminent U.S. military action in Sudan are next to zero.

The reasons for that have less to do with the specifics of Darfur than with the way in which the invasion of Iraq has stretched America’s capabilities and undercut the entire rationale for Western intervention in far-off lands.

Mr. Biden argued at the hearing that a mere 2,500 troops on the ground could change the situation in Darfur beyond recognition. Over the past four years, anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people have died as a result of fighting in the region.

Military intervention, Mr. Biden acknowledged, “will not solve the situation. But it will mean there will be 10, a hundred, 500, a thousand, 2,000, 5,000, 15,000 women who will not be raped, children who will not die, and people who will not just be murdered indiscriminately.”

It is a compelling, humane argument. But the administration and the bulk of the American public seem unlikely to be shifted by it.

Practicalities and realpolitik weigh against a U.S.-led intervention. The U.S. armed forces are at breaking point because of the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Pragmatists fear a backlash if the U.S. were to undertake military action in yet another predominantly Muslim nation.

And above all, Iraq is a mess. With the nation that was once supposed to represent a new flowering of democracy in the Middle East slipping ever deeper into blood-drenched chaos, the argument for American intervention anywhere else gets no traction—even somewhere like Darfur, where the context is utterly different.

Last November, Ken Adelman, an erstwhile member of the Defense Policy Board and one of the most vocal supporters of the push to remove Saddam Hussein, told Vanity Fair that “the idea of a tough foreign policy on behalf of morality, the idea of using our power for moral good in the world,” is dead for at least a generation. After Iraq, he said, “it’s not going to sell.”

To some political observers, Mr. Adelman’s neoconservatism is sufficient grounds to dismiss his views out of hand. But his central point—that American muscle can and should be used for good in the wider world—seemed very credible not so long ago.

Back in the 1990’s, American indifference seemed to breed greater perils than action. The horrors of Rwanda unfolded without impediment from Washington. By contrast, Bosnia and Kosovo provided a different template—one in which the concept of a humanitarian war did not seem like a contradiction in terms.

Since the invasion of Iraq turned sour, public support for forceful American involvement in world affairs has hemorrhaged.

A 2005 Pew Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally, and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” It was the highest figure in over 40 years of polling on that question.

In a 2006 German Marshall Fund poll, 64 percent of Republicans agreed that the U.S. should “help establish democracy in other countries,” but only 35 percent of Democrats shared that view.

Such a finding, Peter Beinart wrote in last week’s Time magazine, suggests that “grass-roots Democrats are not in a missionary mood.”

Nor are America’s traditional allies. Exulting in the midterm-election results last November, Simon Jenkins, a columnist with the left-of-center Guardian in London, expressed delight that “a wretched era of American intervention has come to an end.”

But when did this era begin? Did its wretchedness include the interventions that forced the Serbs to the negotiating table for the Dayton Accords, that stopped the mass murder of Kosovars, and that drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan?

Do the apocalyptic death tolls in Rwanda and Darfur not provide grim proof of the wretchedness of inaction?

Three weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Prime Minister Tony Blair—a more articulate advocate of Western intervention than anyone in the Bush administration—addressed the British Labor Party’s national conference. In his speech, he urged his listeners not to turn from the idea of engagement with the world, but to push harder for change:

 “The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: They too are our cause,” Mr. Blair said.

 “This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.”

The pieces have settled now. Mr. Blair is expected to announce his resignation next month, his legacy wrecked by Iraq. Mr. Bush has fared little better.

The tragedy of Iraq doesn’t begin and end on the streets of Baghdad or Ramadi or Najaf. The manifold failures there have also doomed the possibility of meaningful Western intervention elsewhere anytime soon.

That is something that dictators will have cause to celebrate, and those they oppress will have cause to mourn, many times in the years ahead.  The Tragic Death of Enlightened Interventionism