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The Libyan War and Realism

Noah Millman continues the discussion on Obama and realism:

To start, allow me to put in a word for retiring the word “realist” as a prescriptive rather than a descriptive term. “Realism” already refers to a theory of foreign relations according to which such relations are driven by the national interest. Not should be – are – that’s why it’s a descriptive rather than a prescriptive term. Using the same word to refer to people who think our foreign policy should be driven by national interest only confuses matters.

I’ll agree with Noah that realist isn’t a very precise description. Any term that can conceivably apply to everyone from George Kennan to Condoleeza Rice isn’t very useful, but that’s because it is being applied far too broadly. If there is a problem with the term realist, it is that it gets overused to describe almost every internationalist who isn’t a Samantha Power-style liberal interventionist or a Max Boot-like neoconservative. That’s bound to lump in all sorts of people with very different assumptions, and many of these people might not even describe themselves in this way. In contemporary debates, realist is an almost default term for describing any center-left or center-right critic of recent or ongoing U.S. foreign wars, which tells us almost nothing about their other foreign policy views. I agree that the phrase “national interest” can be defined so broadly that it can end up referring to things that have nothing to do with U.S. security. Again, that’s not much of an argument that we should scrap the phrase in policy debates, but rather that it should be used more precisely and carefully.

The Libyan war still seems a useful test for distinguishing between realists and other sorts of internationalists, because one would be hard-pressed to find any self-identified realists that supported intervention in Libya. Besides, the argument that intervening in Libya’s conflict served vital national interests doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny. Self-identified realists tend to be even more skeptical of wars for regime change after Iraq than they were before, but beyond that they saw no reason to wage a war for regime change when U.S. and allied security interests weren’t threatened by the regime in question.

I consider the Libyan war to be much more like interventions in the Balkans because the U.S. had no real stake in the outcome of those conflicts just as the U.S. had no stake in the outcome of Libya’s internal conflict. In all these cases, no conceivable U.S. interests were at stake. Frankly, there were no French and British interests at stake in Libya, either, but apparently that wasn’t going to get in the way of Sarkozy and Cameron’s adventure. As far as examples from the real world go, the Libyan war is probably the best recent case for determining who should be described as a realist in the Scowcroft tradition (which is what we’ve been taking about) and who shouldn’t be.

As for the waging of the Libyan war, it’s true that France agitated and pushed for the war, but the U.S. was ultimately instrumental in making it happen, and it couldn’t have happened without the U.S. Turning it into an official NATO mission and promoting the “leading from behind” idea were useful in order to obscure the extent of U.S. involvement, which was always considerable. Because allied security was never at stake, U.S. support for France and Britain mostly represented an indulgence of our allies’ poor judgment. Considering how invested Britain and France had been in the international rehabilitation of Gaddafi, the about-face of both governments was certainly cynical, but one looks in vain to see how the war in Libya made either country more secure. (Indeed, as France now courts retaliation for its military action in Mali, France is potentially less secure now than it was two years ago thanks to Sarkozy’s adventurism.) In that respect, U.S. involvement in Libya was the opposite of what Eisenhower did in response to the Suez crisis. Our allies eagerly wanted to blunder into a new war. Instead of discouraging them from doing so, Obama enabled their blundering. That’s something that I don’t think that other earlier Republican presidents would have done under similar circumstances.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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