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Libya and Dueck’s Conservative Realism

Conor Friedersdorf has a useful summary of some recent commentary on Libya, and he and Reihan have an interesting conversation on Libya and war powers. I would like to challenge one claim that he made. Conor cited Colin Dueck’s recent op-ed as an example of a “resurgence of foreign policy realism on the right.” As […]

Conor Friedersdorf has a useful summary of some recent commentary on Libya, and he and Reihan have an interesting conversation on Libya and war powers. I would like to challenge one claim that he made. Conor cited Colin Dueck’s recent op-ed as an example of a “resurgence of foreign policy realism on the right.” As far as Libya is concerned, this is somewhat misleading.

Prof. Dueck correctly argues that skepticism on Libya and Afghanistan is not proof of “isolationism,” and describes Republican discontent with both wars in terms of Jacksonian nationalist sentiment. As far as this argument goes, Dueck is on solid ground. I don’t dispute that a candidate advancing “a muscular, unapologetic” foreign policy is much more likely to win the GOP nomination, and Dueck is also right that most Republicans support what he describes as “a foreign policy posture of American leadership, strong national defense, energetic counter-terrorism, and firm support for U.S. allies.” Of course, much of this hinges on what Dueck thinks “leadership,” “defense,” and “firm support” mean.

Dueck has authored a lengthy article outlining his vision of a conservative realist foreign policy, in which he distinguished realists from hawks and nationalists, and much of it is very sensible. On Libya, it seems that Dueck has run afoul of at least one of his own requirements for conservative realism. In his 2010 article, Dueck wrote:

Seventh, with regard to military intervention, the U.S. should be much more careful than it has been over the past 20 years about intervening abroad, and at the same time much more capable, overwhelming, and relentless when it chooses to do so. From Somalia to Iraq, the pattern must be broken of initially inadequate interventions in peripheral locations of questionable centrality to U.S. security. Picking fights in unpromising locations only encourages the impression of weakness when these fights go badly. Once American forces are committed, however, there can hardly be anything more important than winning the wars the U.S. is actually fighting. This means, among other things, building on the dramatic improvements in recent years in American capacities when it comes to counter-insurgency. If the United States is going to intervene militarily abroad, it must be adequately prepared for the constabulary and reconstruction duties that inevitably follow, or it will only invite humiliation.

Nothing better describes the Libyan war than an “inadequate intervention” in a “peripheral location of questionable centrality to U.S. security.” If Libya is peripheral to U.S. security interests, it is hard to take seriously the claim that the U.S. must see the Libyan war through up to and including being prepared for “the constabulary and reconstruction duties that inevitably follow.” Dueck greatly overrates the harm to U.S. security that would be done by pulling the plug on a mistaken intervention, and he sets himself up for endorsing escalation of an “inadequate intervention” once it has begun. As it happens, escalation is exactly what Dueck favors in Libya.

Dueck wrote in his op-ed:

I believe the answer in this case [Libya] is not to pull the plug on operations, but to escalate U.S. airstrikes, in order to speed Gadhafi’s overthrow; we cannot simply walk away, now that the United States has picked a fight, without bolstering impressions of American weakness overseas. But if frustration with this Libyan operation amounts to isolationism, then we need to find a new foreign policy lexicon.

Certainly, “we” can walk away. It does not convey weakness to acknowledge that irrelevant, unnecessary conflicts are irrelevant and unnecessary and to adjust accordingly. Rather, this suggests a measure of wisdom and indicates that some learning has taken place. Is it better to bolster an impression of American foolishness and an inability to extricate itself from unnecessary conflicts?

Dueck was also one of the signatories of the open letter from the Foreign Policy Initiative urging the House GOP not to cut off funds for the Libyan war. The letter stated:

The United States must see this effort in Libya through to its conclusion. Success is profoundly in our interests and in keeping with our principles as a nation. The success of NATO’s operations will influence how other Middle Eastern regimes respond to the demands of their people for more political rights and freedoms. For the United States and NATO to be defeated by Muammar al-Qaddafi would suggest that American leadership and resolution were now gravely in doubt—a conclusion that would undermine American influence and embolden our nation’s enemies.

This passage is filled with mistaken assumptions. Success in Libya is not “profoundly in our interests.” It is much less important than that, just as the outcome of the Libyan civil war was much less important than interventionists claimed in March. The success of the Libyan war probably will not influence how other regimes in the region respond to popular demands for political reform. The start of the Libyan war certainly hasn’t stopped Assad’s regime from cracking down with great brutality, and it obviously hasn’t inspired any fear in the Sudanese government, which is reportedly engaged in an assault on the Nuba minority in South Kordofan.

Correcting a major policy blunder is not a sign of weakness. The supposed virtue of ruling out any ground forces in Libya was that it would make it much easier to cut U.S. and allied losses if the campaign dragged on too long. Dueck argues for the intensification of an air campaign that by itself is unlikely to yield the desired outcome, which is itself another form of “inadequate intervention.” At the same time, he has put himself in the position of supporting the escalation of an illegal war that is at most tangential to American interests.

This may be where Dueck’s position on Libya most clearly clashes with his earlier article. He stated in his article:

The proper and true end of American foreign policy is neither gross international power, nor the export of democracy, but rather the preservation of a republican and constitutional system of government inside the United States.

That’s a reasonable and admirable definition of the proper end of U.S. foreign policy, so how is it that Dueck signed a letter that effectively urged Congress to do nothing in the face of an illegal war that offends against our republican and constitutional system of government?

Update: Dueck had an article at National Review last week arguing along the same lines as he did in his op-ed. I disagree with most of the article, especially the idea that the withdrawals from Somalia, Lebanon, and Vietnam were mistakes, but there is one thing Dueck says that is absolutely right:

The management of the Libyan campaign has been a case study in how not to use force overseas.

Here is Tom Switzer’s review of Dueck’s book, Hard Line.



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