The war on terror and the long death of liberal interventionism

By removing all troops from Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks’ 20th anniversary, President Joe Biden sent a none-too-subtle message: He wanted America, and the world, to see that he was turning the page — that the war on terror era was well and truly over. In a speech last week justifying his decision, he stated the rationale explicitly: “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of Biden’s seriousness. US forces remain engaged in counterterrorism operations across the globe. After an ISIS suicide bombing at Kabul airport during the withdrawal killed an estimated 170 people, including 13 American service members, the US launched drone strikes against ISIS targets in Afghanistan — killing at least 10 Afghan civilians. And some of the attacks on Biden’s policy from the Washington foreign policy establishment suggest its appetite for war is hardly sated.

Yet the Afghan withdrawal shows a significant break with the post-9/11 order — at least among liberals.

Since the 1990s, a dominant military paradigm on the center left has been liberal interventionism: the notion that the United States has the right, even the obligation, to intervene in far-off countries to protect human life and freedom. Liberal interventionism emerged out of a specific constellation of events: the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the US as the world’s lone superpower, and the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. It paired a morally righteous critique of US foreign policy with post-Cold War optimism about America’s ability to improve the world.

But in subsequent decades, the intellectual scaffolding propping up liberal interventionism took hit after hit.

9/11 was a key inflection point. The attack prompted leading liberal interventionists to marry their doctrines to the Bush administration’s war on terror, becoming some of the most prominent boosters for a disastrous war in Iraq waged by a Republican president. Later, the Obama administration’s experiences in Afghanistan and Libya reinforced lessons about the dangers of intervention.

More recently, an expansionist Russia and rising China raised questions about America’s capability to intervene in countries with competing influences. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and subsequent attempts to overturn the 2020 election revealed urgent threats to liberal democracy — not abroad, but here at home.

As a result, the center of intellectual gravity among liberals has shifted.

“The most remarkable fact about liberals today is that, aside from a few, they’ve all learned their lesson,” says Samuel Moyn, a law professor at Yale University and repentant liberal ex-hawk. “Joe Biden’s choices are kind of inexplicable absent that.”

Liberal interventionism is being supplanted by a loose alternative that could be termed “fortress liberalism”: a belief that saving liberal democracy means defending it where it already exists — and that crusading wars for democracy and human rights are distractions at best and disasters at worst.

This is not to say that America has gotten out of the war business. Biden’s administration requested $753 billion in national security funding from Congress for 2021. The Washington foreign policy consensus is still quite hawkish, entertaining military solutions for problems ranging from ISIS affiliates in Somalia to Russia’s war in Ukraine to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.

But new wars waged on behalf of human rights and democracy are not really on the table (at least on the left). Part of the reason the criticism of the Afghan withdrawal has been so harsh is that some liberals are reckoning with the fall of one of their gods — conceding that, for better or worse, the era of liberal interventionism is over.

The rise of liberal interventionism

In the 1990s, a geopolitical shift brought forth a more globally assertive, interventionist liberalism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States without any serious rivals. During the Cold War, America had built a military capable of intervening relatively swiftly around the world. Absent any peer or even near-peer threat, the United States was free to engage in wars of choice with a reach unmatched by any previous global power.

Now the United States stood as the world’s first liberal hegemon. The US victory in the Cold War was seen not merely as a matter of power politics, but as a vindication of liberal democracy as a political model.

“We were on a euphoric high having won the Cold War,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). The country “had really bought into this narrative of the march of the liberal democracy and that America’s force could really facilitate that.”

This zeitgeist, America’s “unipolar moment” at “the end of history,” created the conditions under which the United States could become a nation that could project its moral ideals — by force if need be.

Two events pushed the American liberal elite toward embracing this vision: genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.

In Rwanda, a campaign of murder by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority killed an estimated 800,000 people in just 100 days. At the time, United Nations peacekeepers were on the ground in Rwanda but prohibited from intervening by their UN mandate. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of the UN force, pleaded with UN officials to let him do something — and they refused. The Clinton administration was also warned of an impending mass slaughter; the White House not only did nothing but worked to block UN action.

Susan Rice, who would later become one of President Barack Obama’s national security advisers, was at the time a Clinton official working on peacekeeping issues. The experience, for her, was shattering. “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Rice told liberal interventionist Samantha Power in a 2001 interview.

A little over a year after Rwanda, a different UN force in Bosnia declared the town of Srebrenica a “safe zone”: a place where civilians fleeing the fighting consuming the Balkans could stay under international protection. Neither the peacekeepers nor prior NATO intervention in the conflict deterred Serbian forces from seizing control of the town. They systematically murdered Bosnian Muslim residents of Srebrenica, killing thousands in a matter of mere days.

Power, who would go on to serve with Rice in the Obama administration as UN ambassador, reported from the ground during the Bosnian conflict — witnessing slaughter that, she argued, could plausibly have been prevented with a more assertive NATO response.

In her 2002 book A Problem From Hell, Power asserts that Rwanda and Srebrenica were part of a pattern; America’s problem historically has not been its capacity to stop genocide, but its will. “No US president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no US president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she wrote. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”

This was the essence of post-Cold War liberal interventionism: the notion that an absent America was a complicit America.

It was a vision of a superpower embracing its moral calling, protecting human rights wherever they needed defense, and it was a doctrine that became influential among liberal intellectuals and pundits after Rwanda and Bosnia. Among its most prominent advocates were the editors of the New Republic, the closest thing to a house organ for American liberalism at the time.

Near the end of Clinton’s presidency, these thinkers’ ideas received real-world vindication.

In 1998, war once again broke out in the Balkans, this time in Kosovo. Once again, ethnic Serbian forces singled out a civilian group — Kosovar Albanian Muslims — for slaughter. But this time, the Clinton administration chose to act, leading a NATO bombing campaign that began in March 1999. By June, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (who led the Serbian side) had been battered into accepting an international peace agreement. Kosovo would become an independent state; in 2000, the authoritarian Milosevic was toppled in a popular uprising and stood trial for war crimes in the Hague in 2002.

Moyn, the Yale professor, worked on Kosovo policy during the war in a junior White House position. He believed they were doing the right thing — but would come to change his mind in a few short years.

“The thing we really missed is that, when you argue for illegal interventions for humanity’s sake, you’re allowing pretexts for future actors,” he says. “We didn’t reckon with the enormous risk at the time — and it was incurred soon after.”

9/11, Iraq, and the decline of the liberal hawks

In 2001, the world pulled the rug out from under liberals interventionists’ feet. The 9/11 attacks, and the George W. Bush administration’s aggressive response, turned American attention away from genocide and toward terrorism — a move that would lead liberal interventionists in a disastrous direction.

Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not textbook liberal interventions. Both were primarily justified on traditional security grounds, first and foremost combating the threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They were masterminded and implemented not by liberals but by neoconservatives and right-wing hawks.

Yet to build support for the war, the administration invoked liberal concerns, like the Taliban’s abuse of women and Saddam’s gassing of Iraq’s Kurds in the city of Halabja. And it worked. Leading liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party, academia, the media, and Washington think tanks bought in — casting war on terror hawkery not as a break with the interventionism of the 1990s but as its logical extension.

“Thanks to the courage and bravery of America’s military and our allies, hope is being restored to many women and families in much of Afghanistan. … [Women’s rights] are universal values which we have a responsibility to promote throughout the world, and especially in a place like Afghanistan,” then-Sen. Hillary Clinton wrote in a 2001 op-ed in Time.

“Morally, there is no significant difference between Halabja and Srebrenica,” New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier wrote in March 2003, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. “Unlike the villain of Srebrenica, the villain of Halabja is in the position to perpetrate the same atrocity again, and worse. How can any liberal, any individual who associates himself with the party of humanity, not count himself in this coalition of the willing?”

But it wasn’t just that they passively accepted Bush’s claims: It’s that they developed their own elaborate arguments for Iraq and the war on terrorism, couched in fully liberal terms.

Books by leading liberal hawks, like scholar Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism and New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s A Fighting Faith, argued that radical Islam was a civilizational challenge to liberalism — the next great battle after fascism and communism. The messianic liberal energies once focused on genocide prevention became redirected toward defeating jihadism and spreading democracy in the Muslim world.

“America’s destiny is literally at stake,” then-Sen. Joe Biden said in a speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. “The overwhelming obligation of the next president is clear: Make America stronger, make America safer, and win the death-struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism.”

But the war in Iraq swiftly proved disastrous. Hundreds of thousands died as a result of the US invasion, which uncovered no weapons of mass destruction. Instead of stabilizing the region and promoting democracy, it gave birth to ISIS and a fragile Iraqi state few wanted to emulate. During the conflict, American troops committed atrocities — including mass murder and torture — that undermined US claims to moral superiority. Meanwhile, Bush neglected the occupation of Afghanistan; Osama bin Laden escaped and the Taliban reconstituted itself, evolving into an effective and deadly insurgency by the time Bush left office.

Ben Rhodes, who would become one of Obama’s leading foreign policy advisers, began his career in in the midst of the early-2000s war fervor — a “24-year-old pissed off about 9/11,” as he puts it. Like most Democrats, he bought into the notion that the war on terrorism would be a “generational endeavor” — only to have his faith shattered when Bush, backed by the bulk of the national security establishment, used this premise as a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

“I never got over that,” Rhodes tells me. “It was a warning sign to me that you could put an intellectual framework around anything, even something as manifestly dumb as invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and then occupying it.”

The catastrophe in Iraq and the long quagmire in Afghanistan undermined two fundamental liberal interventionist premises. First, that America could be trusted to attack the right targets — that liberal ideals would not be abused to justify unjust wars. Second, that defeating murderous tyrants would produce better humanitarian outcomes.

These twin lessons played a pivotal role in the decline of liberal interventionism. Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic primary in no small part because he had opposed the Iraq War from the outset — while Hillary Clinton, infamously, had supported it. It was a sign of the hawkish tide’s waning, of the rise of a more cautious spirit on the center left.

But liberal interventionism wasn’t quite extinguished yet. As president, Obama surged troops into Afghanistan in an effort to defeat the rising Taliban insurgency. When faced with a potential mass slaughter in the Libyan city of Benghazi in 2011, he chose to launch a Kosovo-style intervention — multilateral, primarily airpower, no large-scale postwar American occupation.

The US and its allies not only stopped the conquest of Benghazi but also toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi — arguably exceeding their UN mandate in doing so. And there was no subsequent quagmire as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the war was hardly an unmitigated success. Shortly after Qaddafi’s fall, Libya degenerated into violence and civil conflict. It became an anarchic and violent place, a weakly governed space exploited by jihadist militants — one that remains unstable today.

It’s possible — likely, in my view — that Libya would have been even worse off absent US intervention. But for Obama and many liberals, the war was proof that even a “light footprint” intervention typically isn’t worth the costs. Rhodes recalls a conversation with Obama about intervening in Syria’s civil war that crystallized where liberalism had moved to by the mid-2010s:

After Libya, I remember sitting in the Situation Room saying, “We have to consider doing more [in Syria].” And Obama was in the meeting and he was like, “What do we do, Ben?” with some exasperation … he was very easily leading me to the logical conclusion that any limited intervention would either accomplish nothing or lead to a much more significant intervention, for which there was absolutely no political support and was likely to fail in the same way that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya did.

When it comes to liberal interventionism in the Obama years, Rhodes believes that “Libya ended all of it.” The refusal to intervene in Syria, followed by Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal, were more steps down the same path — toward a new posture among liberals.

China, Trump, and the emergence of “fortress liberalism”

After the catastrophes in the Middle East, the most prominent liberal interventionists went in different directions.

Power and Rice are both serving in the Biden administration, but neither works on military or defense policy: Power is the head of USAID while Rice runs Biden’s Domestic Policy Council.

Other hawks are once again warning of alleged existential threats to liberalism, albeit from a different corner: Wieseltier and Berman have both evolved into critics of “cancel culture” and the alleged excesses of the left. Still others, like Beinart and Moyn, have spent years grappling with what they now see as the terrible mistakes of the 1990s and 2000s, becoming influential skeptics in debates over the US use of force.

But on the whole, what was once a vital intellectual and political movement has dissolved. No one event illustrates this more clearly than Biden, who voted for the Iraq War, supervising America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Some liberal interventionists, like the Atlantic’s George Packer, attacked the Biden withdrawal, as did many “straight news” reporters and Washington think tank denizens. But most of these objections focused on either the withdrawal’s execution, like a failure to evacuate Afghan allies quickly enough, or national security concerns (like the terrorist threat posed by a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan).

The liberal move away from interventionism is not solely the result of America’s Middle Eastern misadventures. It is also a reaction to deeper transformations in global politics.

First, the United States is no longer unrivaled in the way it was when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, intervention in Syria, and meddling in the 2016 election refocused American attention on its old enemy. Even more important, the rise of China suggested that America might actually face a peer competitor in the future — a rising power that, unlike Russia, might be able to overtake America in global influence.

Russian and Chinese assertiveness has led official Washington to refocus on “great power competition”: a foreign policy primarily concerned with US relations with large rivals rather than the internal affairs of smaller, strategically marginal states. In this paradigm, some liberals began to see wars for human rights as a costly distraction — aligning with realists in a renewed emphasis on traditional power politics.

“I don’t actually think that the failures of foreign policy in the Middle East alone were enough to catalyze this shift” against interventionism, says Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “I think it’s the rise of China, and more broadly the fact that America is in relative decline … that is where we start hearing some talk of constraints.”

Biden invoked this concern, quite explicitly, in his speech justifying the Afghanistan withdrawal: “Our true strategic competitors — China and Russia — would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”

But it’s not just Russia and China that have doomed liberal interventionism. American liberals now face a threat closer to home: Donald Trump, an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party, and the rise of illiberal populism inside democratic states.

The shock of far-right populism did not just undermine the sense of destiny that motivated liberal global ambitions in the 1990s. It also made liberals acutely aware that the great ideological battle of today would not be waged abroad but at home. Liberalism, on the offensive since the Cold War, has been backfooted by far-right populism.

“How can a country that has January 6 fix Afghanistan?” Rhodes asks, referring to the insurrection at the US Capitol.

It’s a question that captures the shifting mood among liberals — and the rise of fortress liberalism. Twenty years after 9/11, liberals are deprioritizing the spread of liberal values in favor of protecting them where they are already in place.

“Rather than wasting its still considerable power on quixotic bids to restore the liberal order or remake the world in its own image, the United States should focus on what it can realistically achieve,” Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Lissner, both current Biden NSC staffers, wrote in a 2019 Foreign Affairs essay.

Fortress liberalism is not a clean break from what came before it. Biden, for example, has been quite clear on his willingness to use force against terrorists around the world.

While the door may still be open to future liberal interventions, it is clear that liberal interventionism as a doctrine — that American military policy should be oriented around stopping genocide and spreading liberal values — has been supplanted.

But for all its errors — and they were myriad and massive — liberal interventionism did contain a core insight worth preserving: that a life is no less valuable because it is lived outside America’s borders.

The greatest sins of American foreign policy have not been the result of an excess of concern for foreign life but a lack of it. From the genocide of Indigenous peoples to the transatlantic slave trade to imperialism in Latin America to Cold War-era support for mass murders and torturers, America has a long and horrifying track record of sacrificing people on the altar of its own economic and strategic interests.

Liberal interventionists were right to recoil from this past and seek something better. But they were too quick to conclude that the solution was moralized militarism — to see the use of American might against manifestly bad actors as righteous rather than dangerous.

Preserving the moral outlook of ’90s liberal interventionism while abandoning its militarism means discharging our moral duties to non-Americans through nonviolent means: leading the world in the fight against climate change, opening America’s doors to many more refugees, and sending humanitarian aid to the world’s impoverished.

It also means recognizing the toll that any war, however just-seeming, has on civilians — and, as a result, opposing the use of force as anything but a last resort under truly desperate circumstances.

Liberal interventionism barely had a pulse these past few years; Biden’s withdrawal is less its formal end than a long, drawn-out coda. Today’s liberals do seem to have internalized at least one key lesson from its failures: concluding, as John Quincy Adams put it, that America should not survey the world “in search of monsters to destroy.”

But they should also remember the second half of Adams’s formulation: that the United States must also proclaim “the inextinguishable rights of human nature and the only lawful foundations of government,” that “wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.”

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