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May 21 2013

Are you a ‘liberal imperialist’?

Stephen R. Walt takes on those whom he calls ‘liberal imperialists’.

Are you a liberal imperialist? Liberal imperialists are like kinder, gentler neoconservatives: Like neocons, they believe it’s America’s responsibility to right political and humanitarian wrongs around the world, and they’re comfortable with the idea of the United States deciding who will run countries such as Libya, Syria, or Afghanistan. Unlike neocons, liberal imperialists embrace and support international institutions (like the United Nations), and they are driven more by concern for human rights than they are by blind nationalism or protecting the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Still, like the neocons, liberal imperialists are eager proponents for using American hard power, even in situations where it might easily do more harm than good. The odd-bedfellow combination of their idealism with neocons’ ideology has given us a lot of bad foreign policy over the past decade, especially the decisions to intervene militarily in Iraq or nation-build in Afghanistan, and today’s drumbeat to do the same in Syria.

He has developed a checklist for people to see if they fit the bill. It is a pretty good one. I did not self-identify with any of them except for partially with #8 where he says:

You are convinced that the desire for freedom is hard-wired into human DNA and that Western-style liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. Accordingly, you believe that democracy can triumph anywhere — even in deeply divided societies that have never been democratic before — if outsiders provide enough help.

I do believe that democracy can triumph anywhere and also believe that liberal democracy in which basic needs are met through socialized government institutions is the best form of it, though not the only legitimate one. I am not sure what extra clarity the ‘Western-style’ qualifier provides.

52 comments

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  1. 1
    atheist

    I thought it was a really great post too. In my opinion the West has this syndrome which keeps us from understanding that while we’re a wealthy, influential part of the world, we don’t control everything. I thought his point #3 was key as well. It is easy to criticize other nations, other peoples. But it is more difficult (and more dangerous) to criticize your own.

  2. 2
    Raging Bee

    Walt is offering a bullshit false dichotomy here. What about liberals who advocate use of US hard power when we calculate that it will do more good than harm? We’re certainly not neocons, but we’re also not in the phony category Walt just made up.

    Do you, or Walt, really think that every liberal who advocates US intervention in world affairs does so without regard to possible harm? This Walt guy kinda sounds like a libertarian trying to trash liberals in the service of his ignorant isolationist agenda.

  3. 3
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Thanks for this. How coincidental! I just read James Peck’s Ideal Illusions this past weekend. It’s a lot like Jean Bricmont’s Humanitarian Imperialism. Neither is a fantastic book (Bricmont’s is more powerful), but they’re worth reading for the importance of the topic alone. Now to check out Walt’s post…

  4. 4
    flex

    The post was good, but I’d even criticize point number 8.

    If there is any social trait hardwired into humans DNA it is not a desire for freedom, but a desire to follow a leader. I’m skeptical that a trait like that does exist, but I’m willing to look at the evidence. On the other hand, I would go out on a limb and declare that individualism is not hardwired into our species.

    Further, I would expand upon your point about liberal democracies and say: Liberal democracies in which basic needs are met through socialize government institutions are the best form of government to provide, enable and encourage opportunities for individual development among its citizens.

    If that’s your idea of why government exists, then liberal democratic government is the best form. On the other hand, if you are more concerned with preventing change, then a government which reduces opportunities for personal growth (like an oligarchy) works better. Which direction is our government headed?

  5. 5
    Raging Bee

    Okay, I just read his “10 Warning Signs that You Are a Liberal Imperialist.” Walt is pretty clearly trying to equate liberal intervention-advocates with Bush-Cheney neocons. And he’s doing what Bush-Cheney-Rove propagandists did right after 9/11: spread the lie that there was no middle ground between rabid neocons and pacifists.

  6. 6
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 12:57 pm (UTC -4)

    Walt is offering a bullshit false dichotomy here. What about liberals who advocate use of US hard power when we calculate that it will do more good than harm? …

    Do you, or Walt, really think that every liberal who advocates US intervention in world affairs does so without regard to possible harm? This Walt guy kinda sounds like a libertarian trying to trash liberals in the service of his ignorant isolationist agenda.

    I don’t think he’s suggesting that all liberals are imperialists. Rather, I think he’s talking about a specific strain of liberal opinion that supports a warlike foreign policy. These “liberal imperialists” often support the same policies that neoconservatives do, but for different reasons. Contemporary examples of Liberal Imperialists would include: Hillary Clinton, or Joe Lieberman. The journalist Spencer Ackerman might be another example.

    Walt is not known as a libertarian and I don’t think he is one. He is a foreign policy realist, with moderate views on domestic politics. I also don’t think it’s fair to describe him as an “isolationist”. His view is not that the USA should detach from the world — as if that would be possible — by rather that we shouldn’t start wars so much because it’s not in the national interest and can have unpredictable effects.

  7. 7
    atheist

    Sorry, first two paragraphs should be block qutoes.

  8. 8
    ollie

    I was about to get angry until I actually read the article. I admit that I am mostly against intervention and I admit that sometimes meddling will make a bad situation worse.

    However, I reject the notion that the US is more evil than other countries. On moral grounds, I see the US as average but with more power at its disposal.

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    I hope you don’t mind but I went in and corrected your comment in light of your post script to make it correspond to what you meant.

  10. 10
    atheist

    Thanks!

  11. 11
    brucegee1962

    I didn’t feel like signing up for a new site, so I couldn’t read the article. But it doesn’t sound as if it addresses the biggest practical reason for supporting popular rebellions: when they reach a widespread swath of the populace as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring, they almost always succeed in toppling the dictator. A low-cost intervention like we did in Libya then makes us look like a hero, and gives us an in with the new regime.

    Basically, when these dictators fall, the result is always a scrum between people who like us and people who hate our guts. If some of our bombs helped topple the bad guy, it gives the people who like us ammunition to come up on top. There’s no guarantee that the ones who hate us won’t win, like they did in Egypt — but I don’t think the whole story there has been written yet, and at least not everyone there is against us.

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    Once you sign up you don’t have to keep logging in, so it is relatively painless. In fact, I had forgotten that I had signed up until your comment reminded me that I had once done so.

  13. 13
    Raging Bee

    These “liberal imperialists” often support the same policies that neoconservatives do, but for different reasons.

    That’s a ridiculously vague over-generalization, and the examples you cite are a) unsupported by any actual comparison of their reasons, and b) not representative of liberal foreign policy opinions in general (much of which involves using economic aid instead of force to achieve certain goals). If someone is acting like a neocon, then why pretend he’s anything other than a neocon? (Besides, nearly all neocons also use liberal rhetoric to justify their policies, and some actually seem to think their willingness to go to war makes them MORE LIBERAL than thou.)

    So it sounds like Walt is deliberately trying to invent a false category and use it to pretend that a significant (but unspecified) chunk of liberals are equal to neocons.

  14. 14
    Raging Bee

    …I think he’s talking about a specific strain of liberal opinion that supports a warlike foreign policy.

    This is a very dishonest oversimplification. Do I “support a warlike foreign policy” because I (sort of) supported our invasion of Afghanistan? Or do I oppose a “warlike foreign policy” because I also opposed the Iraq invasion at the same time? Oh wait, I also thought that invading Somalia made more sense than invading Iraq — where does that put me? As you can see, there’s a LOT of nuance that Walt’s excluded-middle bullshit simply ignores.

  15. 15
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 1:26 pm (UTC -4)

    So it sounds like Walt is deliberately trying to invent a false category and use it to pretend that a significant (but unspecified) chunk of liberals are equal to neocons.

    I really disagree that “Liberal Imperialist” is a false category. I also disagree that Walt is saying Liberal Imperialists are equal to neocons. He is actually saying that despite their very different worldviews, they end up supporting similar policies.

    If you want a specific example of “Liberal Interventionist” policy, consider Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to do a “troop surge” in Afghanistan. Obama ran partially on an anti-Iraq war platform in2008, but also stated, in 2002: “That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.

    In 2009, apparently either because he agreed with the consensus at the time that Afghanistan was a good war, or possibly because he wished to hedge against seeming to pacifist, Obama increased the amount of troops in Afghanistan in an attempt to regain control of that nation. Actually, a lot of the rhetoric that has been used to prolong the US presence in Afghanistan is of the “Liberal Imperialist” variety. For instance, consider this CNN article, “If we betray Afghan women, the Taliban win” by Daisy Khan on Dec 3, 2012. The idea is that we need to continue our occupation of Afghanistan because if we leave, women’s rights will be in danger. This is another example of Liberal Imperialism, because in this case human rights are being used to argue for more war.

    So there are liberals who argue for wars on the basis of supporting human rights, and who tend to be a bit unrealistic about what military force can achieve. This appears to be the definition that Mr. Walt is looking at. One does not have to be a libertarian or an isolationist to find this sort of politics to be dangerous.

  16. 16
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 1:26 pm (UTC -4) Link to this comment

    So it sounds like Walt is deliberately trying to invent a false category and use it to pretend that a significant (but unspecified) chunk of liberals are equal to neocons.

    No, he’s not saying that liberal imperialists are equal to neocons. He’s saying they often support the same policies, but for very different reasons.

  17. 17
    atheist

    You seem to perceive his post as an attack on liberalism generally. That’s not what he’s getting at. I would say that Walt is pretty liberal himself. He’s focusing on one particular kind of foreign policy.

  18. 18
    Raging Bee

    He’s saying they often support the same policies, but for very different reasons.

    Based on what specific examples?

  19. 19
    khms

    It seems to me that this discussion misses the elephant in the living room.

    First, stop policies like propping up third world dictators. Stop intervening in cases where there is no demonstrable humanitarian need, or need for self defense. Actually try to use diplomacy before the situation is actually exploded. Stop using security council vetoes, period. I’ve yet to hear of a case where they were a good idea.

  20. 20
    atheist

    Specific example:

    Staying in Afghanistan.
    Neocon arguments for staying in Afghanistan: If we leave, al Qaeda will be strengthened, we’ll look less credible, and China will feel emboldened to develop oil infrastructure there.
    Liberal arguments for staying in Afghanistan: If we leave, women’s rights will suffer a terrible setback. The Taliban will cause great suffering. In addition, the Afghan state won’t respect religious freedom.

    So same policy (keep US troops in Afghanistan) but for different reasons.

  21. 21
    deepak shetty

    @Raging Bee
    What about liberals who advocate use of US hard power when we calculate that it will do more good than harm?
    Hmm – do you have an example of such a “calculation” ?
    As well as do you think that neocons believe that intervention will do more harm then good?

  22. 22
    atheist

    @deepak shetty – May 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm (UTC -4)

    What about liberals who advocate use of US hard power when we calculate that it will do more good than harm?
    Hmm – do you have an example of such a “calculation” ?

    Juan Cole on Libya.

  23. 23
    Raging Bee

    If you want a specific example of “Liberal Interventionist” policy, consider Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to do a “troop surge” in Afghanistan. Obama ran partially on an anti-Iraq war platform in 2008, but also stated, in 2002: “That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

    This is a total non-sequitur. Seriously, none of those sentences are connected.

    In 2009, apparently either because he agreed with the consensus at the time that Afghanistan was a good war, or possibly because he wished to hedge against seeming to pacifist, Obama increased the amount of troops in Afghanistan in an attempt to regain control of that nation. Actually, a lot of the rhetoric that has been used to prolong the US presence in Afghanistan is of the “Liberal Imperialist” variety.

    Obama increased troop numbers in Afghanistan because he INHERITED that war and had to wage it sensibly. That doesn’t make him a “liberal imperialist,” nor does it mean he’s “supporting similar policies” to those of the neocons. Doing your best to muddle through with a policy you inherited from someone else is NOT the same as “supporting a similar policy.”

    So there are liberals who argue for wars on the basis of supporting human rights, and who tend to be a bit unrealistic about what military force can achieve.

    Again, you and Walt are over-generalizing. (And again, Walt’s “Ten Signs” apply just as firmly to neocons as they do to the narrow slice of liberals who fit in his “neocon in all but label” category.) Did it ever occur to you that not all liberals support the same interventionist policies? Obama both consistently opposed, and drew down our involvement in, the Iraq war, so your “supports similar policies” claim kinda falls apart there.

    So there are liberals who argue for wars on the basis of supporting human rights, and who tend to be a bit unrealistic about what military force can achieve.

    And you’ve named, what, two of them? One of whom is now retired, and the other has been totally irrelevant for about as long as I can remember. And how, exactly, are they “unrealistic about what military force can achieve?” Obama doesn’t sound all that unraelistic.

  24. 24
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm (UTC -4)

    And how, exactly, are they “unrealistic about what military force can achieve?” Obama doesn’t sound all that unraelistic.

    it was unrealistic of Obama to believe that the 2009 surge could have changed the direction of the war. And it didn’t.

  25. 25
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm (UTC -4)

    If you want a specific example of “Liberal Interventionist” policy, consider Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to do a “troop surge” in Afghanistan. Obama ran partially on an anti-Iraq war platform in 2008, but also stated, in 2002: “That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”

    This is a total non-sequitur. Seriously, none of those sentences are connected.

    I admit my point was muddled. What I was getting at was that Obama is not opposed to wars, only “dumb wars”. So if a given war looked smart, he was stating he would support it.

  26. 26
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 2:50 pm (UTC -4)

    So there are liberals who argue for wars on the basis of supporting human rights, and who tend to be a bit unrealistic about what military force can achieve.

    Again, you and Walt are over-generalizing. (And again, Walt’s “Ten Signs” apply just as firmly to neocons as they do to the narrow slice of liberals who fit in his “neocon in all but label” category.) Did it ever occur to you that not all liberals support the same interventionist policies? Obama both consistently opposed, and drew down our involvement in, the Iraq war, so your “supports similar policies” claim kinda falls apart there.

    Of course it occurs to me that not all liberals support interventionist policies. I would be one of those liberals who don’t support them, and from your comments you seem to often be one too.

  27. 27
    atheist

    And once again, he’s not saying liberal interventionists are “neocon in all but label”. He’s saying that they often support the same policies. He’s making no claim that they are “objectively pro-neocon”.

  28. 28
    atheist

    @deepak shetty – May 21, 2013 at 2:33 pm (UTC -4)

    As well as do you think that neocons believe that intervention will do more harm then good?

    I think he’s actually arguing the neocons don’t care how much damage they do while pursuing their ends. I think that’s accurate.

  29. 29
    Raging Bee

    And once again, he’s not saying liberal interventionists are “neocon in all but label”.

    His “Ten Signs” apply at least as much to neocons as they do to the people he calls “liberal imperialists.” So yes, he is saying they’re the same, whether or not he intends or admits it. I believe that’s called a “category error.”

    Of course it occurs to me that not all liberals support interventionist policies. I would be one of those liberals who don’t support them, and from your comments you seem to often be one too.

    You’re persisting in your excluded-middle fallacy: do you really think there are only two options, “intervention” or “non-intervention?”

  30. 30
    atheist

    @RagingBee – May 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm (UTC -4)

    Of course it occurs to me that not all liberals support interventionist policies. I would be one of those liberals who don’t support them, and from your comments you seem to often be one too.

    You’re persisting in your excluded-middle fallacy: do you really think there are only two options, “intervention” or “non-intervention?”

    No, of course I don’t think there are only two options. There are all kinds of views about how a nation should interact with the world: isolationism, realism, liberal internationalism, marxism, neoconservatism, postcolonialism, liberal interventionism etc.

    Frankly, you seem defensive here and I don’t understand why. His aim is not to criticize liberals, so much as it is to criticize a certain kind of foreign policy that attracts some liberals.

  31. 31
    atheist

    @Raging Bee – May 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm (UTC -4)

    His “Ten Signs” apply at least as much to neocons as they do to the people he calls “liberal imperialists.” So yes, he is saying they’re the same, whether or not he intends or admits it. I believe that’s called a “category error.”

    Libertarian Socialist Noam Chomsky said invading Iraq was a bad thing to do. So did neoconservative Patrick Buchanan. Therefore, Patrick Buchanan and Noam Chomsky are the same, and Libertarian Socialists are the same as Neoconservatives. Q.E.D.

  32. 32
    atheist

    Sorry, Patrick Buchanan is a paleoconservative. Therefore, Libertarian Socialists are the same as Paleoconservatives.

  33. 33
    Raging Bee

    In that case, his “aim” is way off. His article is riddled with fallacies, most of them stemming from his reliance on simplistic labels in place of facts and reason.

  34. 34
    Raging Bee

    Libertarian Socialist Noam Chomsky…

    Are you fucking kidding me? Anyone who thinks you can be a libertarian and a socialist at the same time is too fucking stupid to talk to. Did you forget to add an emoticon in that comment? Either you’re joking, or you’re arguing from labels and abstractions that you don’t even understand.

  35. 35
  36. 36
    Rob Grigjanis

    You could look it up in Wikipedia, for a start.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_socialism

    Your own definition of a word is not necessarily shared by everyone.

  37. 37
    deepak shetty

    @atheist
    I think he’s actually arguing the neocons don’t care how much damage they do while pursuing their ends. I think that’s accurate.
    Its accurate from a liberal point of view. The neocons who aren’t in it for the profit obviously would hold that their policies do more good than harm and that some amount of harm is inevitable no matter what option you choose.

    Also the emphasis was on Raging Bee’s glib use of the word “calculation”

  38. 38
    Mano Singham

    Not all categories are mutually exclusive. One could serve as a modifier of another, since political labels usually span a spectrum. The phrase ‘libertarian socialist’ is not that uncommon. It comes very close to describing me too.

  39. 39
    Rob Grigjanis

    I suspect that, in the USA at least, “libertarian” has become as toxic on the left as “socialist” has become on the right. Labels always sucked, but what else do we have?

  40. 40
    MNb

    1. No.
    2. No.
    3. Yes – and as a Dutchman my criticism explicitly includes the USA.
    4. Yes – international law is the only way to guarantee that things are done the right way a bit more often.
    5. No.
    6. No.
    7. No. I’m very skeptical towards the Kurds in Turkey, for instance.
    8. No.
    9. No.
    10. No.

    I am thoroughly Macchiavellistic. My desired goals are freedom, democracy and welfare all around the world (the best way to increase safety too) so I support any movement in international politics that helps to reach them. Unfortunately it has been obvious that American interventions too often fail in this respect. Intervention in Syria will fail too. The French are way smarter in Mali – they have an exit strategy.

  41. 41
    physicsphdstu

    I looked at history and it is astounding but it seems that liberal democracy is very much a recent thing and not really a western one.

    Apparently NZ was the first to have kind of a liberal democracy with women’s suffrage in 1893 (But women could stand for elections only in 1919 and Maori *still* do not really have representation : http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/maori-and-the-vote/twentieth-century )

    In the US, it has been there only since 1920 (women’s suffrage) / 1965 (voting rights act). Whereas India, the largest republic had full fledged democracy since it’s independence 1947/50 (ratification of the constitution).

  42. 42
    Raging Bee

    Oh, I see — it’s pure brown air that promises a lot of contradictory things, with no actual mechanism to make any of it work in the real world. Or, to look at it another way, it’s classic FDR-style liberalism (for people who’ve been conditioned to hate liberals even when they know we’re right) without it’s most crucial and indispensible part — a government with the power to uphold rights and enforce obligations.

    Like I said, anyone who takes this sort of pie-in-the-sky crap seriously is too stupid to talk to.

  43. 43
    Raging Bee

    More sensible and intelligent labels?

  44. 44
    Raging Bee

    in other words, he’s a jucking foke, just like everyone else who calls themselves “anarchist” or “anarcho-anything.”

  45. 45
    Raging Bee

    Apparently NZ was the first to have kind of a liberal democracy with women’s suffrage in 1893 (But women could stand for elections only in 1919 and Maori *still* do not really have representation…

    So giving women the vote makes a country “kind of a liberal democracy,” even when a whole ethnic group still doesn’t have equal status?

    Whereas India, the largest republic had full fledged democracy since it’s independence 1947/50…

    Give or take the occasional coup, thuggish corrupt family, forced-sterilization campaign, ethnic/religious pogrom, and permanent vilified underclass.

  46. 46
    Raging Bee

    Not all categories are mutually exclusive…

    But some are; and when you try to combine them, all you get is useless mush, as the Wikipedia article shows.

  47. 47
    atheist

    I disagree, but it’s irrelevant to the point: sometimes folks support the same policies for very different reasons. For another example, consider the alliance between Evangelical Christians and Zionist Jews on Israel, which supports Israel taking over the remainder of “Biblical Israel”. The Evangelicals support this because they believe when Jews occupy all of Biblical Israel again, then Jesus will come back to Earth and we will have the end of time. The Zionist Jews support this idea because they want more land, and don’t believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

  48. 48
    M can help you with that.

    “Libertarian” initially referred to a branch of socialism — the explcitly anti-authoritarian branch. It was only relatively recently that a group of authoritarian capitalist-fundamentalists decided to appropriate the term to give the veneer of “liberty” to the system of “freedom is defined as your boss having unlimited control of your personal life.” Chomsky is a libertarian in the original sense, as distinguished from the sense relevant to the appropriative Johnny-come-lately neo-feudalist capitalist/Randroid “Libertarian” crowd.

  49. 49
    M can help you with that.

    So you’re accepting the redefinition of the term “libertarian” by the Randroid types? That’s the only context in which using “libertarian” in the sense in which it was coined looks contradictory.

  50. 50
    Raging Bee

    I’m “accepting” the fact that for all practical purposes, the “Randroid types” now own and control the definition of that word. There are others who claim the label who don’t support the Randroids, but they’re a powerless minority within a minority, and totally useless and irrelevant in today’s policy debates. And yes, that includes Chomsky.

  51. 51
    Raging Bee

    Exactly — the capitalist scum bought and paid for the word, and now it’s theirs. And there’s no good reason for any decent person to try to buy it back from them — there’s plenty of better descriptive labels available instead.

  52. 52
    atheist

    Thanks for explaining further. The neoconservatives are quite a wacky, dangerous bunch.

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