Home/Daniel Larison/Walt and Liberal Interventionists

Walt and Liberal Interventionists

Dan Drezner didn’t like Walt’s “liberal imperialism” list:

What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we’re going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: this one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force — but those in the foreign policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It’s as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.

There aren’t very many “prominent realists” to whom this description applies, and I’m not sure that it really applies to the post Drezner is criticizing. Walt isn’t adopting “the worst rhetorical tropes” of his opponents. Among other things, he isn’t accusing them of vicious prejudices because he disagrees with them on policy, and he isn’t deliberately misrepresenting his opponents’ views. That said, “liberal imperialist” isn’t the right way to describe the people that Walt is criticizing. Except for a few hard-liners that explicitly and proudly declare their affinity for liberal imperialism and sometimes use that name (e.g., Max Boot, Niall Ferguson, etc.), “liberal imperialist” doesn’t apply to Syria hawks very well. If Walt had opted for liberal interventionist instead of “liberal imperialist,” I doubt Drezner would object so strongly and Walt wouldn’t have to change his list very much at all.

Consider this item from Walt’s list:

You are a strong proponent of international law, except when it gets in the way of Doing the Right Thing. Then you emphasize its limitations and explain why the United States doesn’t need to be bound by it in this case.

This accurately describes many liberal interventionists. This was how liberal interventionists justified the Kosovo war, it is how some of them defended the invasion of Iraq, and it is the argument that some have used to call for military action in Syria. Another item on Walt’s list also applies very well to more than a few Syria hawks from across the political spectrum. Walt writes:

Even if you don’t know very much about military history, logistics, or modern military operations, you are still convinced that military power can achieve complex political objectives at relatively low cost.

This isn’t unique to liberal interventionists, but this often crops up in their arguments.

Drezner’s final complaint is essentially that Walt’s post is too polemical and won’t persuade people that don’t already share his assumptions. I suppose this is true, but that is in the nature of most polemical writing. No one writes a polemic against others with persuasion as the goal. The purpose of polemical writing is to ridicule an opposing view by identifying its main flaws. The goal isn’t to get people who hold that view to reconsider their thinking, which is not likely to happen in any case, but to warn others against adopting those ideas.

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.

leave a comment

Latest Articles