Obama the In­ter­ven­tion­ist

The Washington Post Sunday - - Letters To The Editor - Robert Ka­gan

Amer­ica must “lead the world in bat­tling im­me­di­ate evils and pro­mot­ing the ul­ti­mate good.” With those words, Barack Obama put an end to the idea that the al­leged overex­u­ber­ant ide­al­ism and Amer­ica-cen­tric hubris of the past six years is about to give way to a new re­al­ism, a more lim­ited and mod­est view of Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, ca­pa­bil­i­ties and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

Obama’s speech at the Chicago Coun­cil on Global Af­fairs last week was pure John Kennedy, with­out a trace of John Mearsheimer. It had a de­lib­er­ate New Fron­tier feel, in­clud­ing some Kennedy-era ref­er­ences (“we were Ber­lin­ers”) and even the Cold War-era no­tion that the United States is the “leader of the free world.” No one speaks of the “free world” th­ese days, and Obama’s in­sis­tence that we not “cede our claim of lead­er­ship in world af­fairs” will sound like an anachro­nis­tic con­ceit to many Euro­peans, who even in the 1990s com­plained about the bul­ly­ing “hy­per­power.” In Moscow and Bei­jing it will con­firm sus­pi­cions about Amer­ica’s in­her­ent hege­monism. But Obama be­lieves the world yearns to fol­low us, if only we re­store our wor­thi­ness to lead. Per­son­ally, I like it.

All right, you’re think­ing, but at least he wants us to lead by ex­am­ple, not by med­dling ev­ery­where and try­ing to trans­form the world in Amer­ica’s im­age. When he said, “We have heard much over the last six years about how Amer­ica’s larger pur­pose in the world is to pro­mote the spread of free­dom,” you prob­a­bly ex­pected him to dis­tance him­self from this al­legedly dis­cred­ited ide­al­ism.

In­stead, he said, “I agree.” His cri­tique is not that we’ve med­dled too much but that we haven’t med­dled enough. There is more to build­ing democ­racy than “de­pos­ing a dic­ta­tor and set­ting up a bal­lot box.” We must build so­ci­eties with “a strong leg­is­la­ture, an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, the rule of law, a vi­brant civil so­ci­ety, a free press, and an hon­est po­lice force.” We must build up “the ca­pac­ity of the world’s weak­est states” and pro­vide them “what they need to re­duce poverty, build healthy and ed­u­cated com­mu­ni­ties, de­velop mar­kets, . . . gen­er­ate wealth . . . fight ter­ror­ism . . . halt the pro­lif­er­a­tion of deadly weapons” and fight dis­ease. Obama pro­poses to dou­ble an­nual ex­pen­di­tures on th­ese ef­forts, to $50 bil­lion, by 2012.

It’s not just in­ter­na­tional do-good­ism. To Obama, ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one ev­ery­where is of strate­gic con­cern to the United States. “We can­not hope to shape a world where op­por­tu­nity out­weighs dan­ger un­less we en­sure that ev­ery child, ev­ery­where, is taught to build and not to de- stroy.” The “se­cu­rity of the Amer­i­can peo­ple is in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the se­cu­rity of all peo­ple.” Real­ists, call your doc­tors.

Okay, you say, but at least Obama is propos­ing all this Peace Corps-like ac­tiv­ity as a sub­sti­tute for mil­i­tary power. Surely he in­tends to cut or at least cap a de­fense bud­get soar­ing over $500 bil­lion a year. Surely he un­der­stands there is no mil­i­tary an­swer to ter­ror­ism.

Ac­tu­ally, Obama wants to in­crease de­fense spend­ing. He wants to add 65,000 troops to the Army and re­cruit 27,000 more Marines. Why? To fight ter­ror­ism.

He wants the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary to “stay on the of­fense, from Dji­bouti to Kan­da­har,” and he be­lieves that “the abil­ity to put boots on the ground will be crit­i­cal in elim­i­nat­ing the shad­owy ter­ror­ist net­works we now face.” He wants to en­sure that we con­tinue to have “the strong­est, best-equipped mil­i­tary in the world.”

Obama never once says that mil­i­tary force should be used only as a last re­sort. Rather, he in­sists that “no pres­i­dent should ever hes­i­tate to use force — uni­lat­er­ally if nec­es­sary,” not only “to pro­tect our­selves . . . when we are at­tacked,” but also to pro­tect “our vi­tal in­ter­ests” when they are “im­mi­nently threat­ened.” That’s known as pre­emp­tive mil­i­tary ac­tion. It won’t re­as­sure those around the world who worry about let­ting an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent de­cide what a “vi­tal in­ter­est” is and when it is “im­mi­nently threat­ened.”

Nor will they be com­forted to hear that “when we use force in sit­u­a­tions other than self-de­fense, we should make ev­ery ef­fort to gar­ner the clear sup­port and par­tic­i­pa­tion of oth­ers.” Make ev­ery ef­fort?

Con­spic­u­ously ab­sent from Obama’s dis­cus­sion of the use of force are four words: United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

Obama talks about “rogue na­tions,” “hos­tile dic­ta­tors,” “mus­cu­lar al­liances” and main­tain­ing “a strong nu­clear de­ter­rent.” He talks about how we need to “seize” the “Amer­i­can mo­ment.” We must “be­gin the world anew.” This is re­al­ism? This is a left-lib­eral for­eign pol­icy?

Ask Noam Chom­sky the next time you see him.

Of course, it’s just a speech. At the Democrats’ de­bate on Thurs­day, when asked how he would re­spond to an­other ter­ror­ist at­tack on the United States, Obama at first did not say a word about mil­i­tary ac­tion. So maybe his speech only re­flects what he and his ad­vis­ers think Amer­i­cans want to hear. But that is re­veal­ing, too. When it comes to Amer­ica’s role in the world, ap­par­ently they don’t think there’s much of an ar­gu­ment. Robert Ka­gan, a se­nior as­so­ci­ate at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tional Peace and transat­lantic fel­low at the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund, writes a monthly col­umn for The Post. His latest book is “Dan­ger­ous Na­tion,” a his­tory of Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy. He has been ad­vis­ing John McCain’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign on an in­for­mal and un­paid ba­sis.


Sen. Barack Obama ad­dresses the Chicago Coun­cil on Global Af­fairs.

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