I have myself pointed out what I see as a similar contradiction in mainstream conservatism since the neoconservative coup following 2001: how can people support enormous expense and sacrifice to save the poor people of Iraq, and yet resist much smaller expenses to help the poor people of America? It makes little sense to me for a country to consider humanitarian reasons sufficient to expend the amount of blood and treasure we've spent on Iraq or similar ventures, and yet consider humanitarianism insufficient for passing social programs that could ameliorate suffering of people in our own country. (Perhaps the apotheosis of this is when S-CHIP went down, at a time when we were spending billions a month in Iraq.) This is a simplification, of course; we got into Iraq under (bogus) national security pretenses as well. But the neoconservative line is one that places a great deal of importance in humanitarian ideals, and our extended conversation on Iraq and neoconservatism is often concerned with this principle question: what obligation does the United States have to bring democracy and peace to the oppressed people of the world?
Now, as ryan strongly argued, that's equally a question for me. How can I support social programs designed to reduce hardship for Americans, and not support military/humanitarian intervention in places like Darfur? (And I don't, by the way, support US invasion in Darfur, although the question of a UN intervention would be more complicated.) This appears to be one of those classic "turn it back around" questions in bipolar politics. Well, like many of those questions, both sides aren't, in fact, playing with equal hands. And I hold the ace: the people in America who could benefit from expensive social programs are citizens of my country; the people outside American who could benefit from expensive military intervention are not.
That may seem like a pretty cruel statement, and one of simple jingoism or nationalism. But don't misunderstand. This has nothing to do with compassion. It has everything to do with democracy.
Like many other mushy lefties, I do look forward to a time in human history when the state becomes an unnecessary contrivance. The fact is, though, that for the foreseeable future, we'll have the nation-state, and those states will be the shells for organizations of civic government. As long as that's the case, national self-determination is a prerequisite for democracy. (I made the case here.) I have great sympathy for the beleagured people of the earth, but that doesn't overwhelm the fact that I am a (small-d) democrat. As long as nation states are the organizational tool that we used to divide systems of government, coercive attemtps to change other countries through military projection are antidemocratic, even if it really is for their own good.
This is unsatisfying for some of the people posting in comments. MikeF says
An absolute certainty that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans would have welcomed our assistance during the 1990s, and that those who wouldn't have welcomed us had forfeited a right to have any say in the matter. Same with Sudan. Iraq is a different question of course. But we cannot treat these cases from the standpoint of dogmatic opposition to ever using force. Sometimes there is a clear moral imperative to do so.But here's the crucial thing: as long as we are the ones determining which countries are and are not longing for American intervention, intervening is antithetical to freedom. It would be of great moral convenience to superpowers if they really knew when the people of a country wanted to be invaded. But as long as the superpower is the one determining the criteria for righteous invasion, it's just more imperial privilege. Suppose MikeF is right, and hundreds of thousands of Rwandans wanted us to come in, guns blazing. Is that fact alone enough to justify an American invasion? Would 200,000 people be enough, or would we need 400,000? Is it a matter of what percentage of the Rwandan population wanted it? Is a majority enough? Two-thirds? Surely, the minority rights that we believe in should include the right not to submit to an armed invasion. I'm particularly disturbed by MikeF's assurance that there are people who have forfeited their right to oppose American invasion. That's a convenient position for any potential occupier to take. Not to harp on Vladimir Putin, but suppose he said simply that the South Ossetians who opposed Russian intervention had forfeited their right to an opinion. I don't believe many in the Western world would have accepted that notion. As long as it's the invader that decides when it's righteous to invade, it's no different from any other justification for invasion.
I'm not trying to be cute. I'm saying that people in foreign countries lack the wisdom, the neutrality or the authority necessary to be arbiters of when it is appropriate or correct to invade other nations for their own good. This is why I would restrict American intervention to times of self-defense, either following an attack on ourselves or our close military allies, or in the specific and limited instance when our country or our allies are in immediate and obvious threat of aggression. I am also sympathetic to the idea that the international community has some say in military intervention, but I am decidely agnostic (maybe confused is the better word) about institutions like the UN having the authority to authorize war. (The problem with international bodies like the UN is that the nations with the least say are precisely the nations most likely to be the subject of "benevolent" intervention.)
What would this mean for American history? It means I supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban, though I disagreed with much of the prosecution of that war. It meas I would have supported World War II. It means that I would have been open to a meaningful discussion about Desert Storm, because of the aggression of Saddam and the consensus of the international community, although my impulse is to oppose that intervention. I would have been opposed to World War I. I would have been opposed to Korea, and to Vietnam. I was opposed to Iraq II. I am opposed to intervention in Darfur. This doesn't to me seem like an advocacy of "turtleing".
I am, in fact, sympathetic to the oppressed people of the world, and while I won't beat my breast about it, I hope you believe it. What can be done for them? First, we can use soft power (economic, cultural, diplomatic) to attempt to create change. We can act as an example of democracy and right action to inspire indigenous resistance movements. Most importantly, we can stop supporting so many oppressive regimes in the name of securing American interests, like we are currently doing with the murderous authoritarians in Uzbekistan, or the oppressive House of Saud. First do no harm.
More controversially, I think that if we want more people to be free of oppressive governments, we've got to relax the standards by which we decide what exactly constitutes terrorism. I submit to you that there have been very few successful civil liberation movements that haven't involved some forms of violent resistance to the status quo government. (Even the Indian resistance wasn't free from violence.) While I would love for internal resistance movements to be able to secure control from dictators and autocrats without resorting to violence, if we really have compassion for their plights, I don't think we can condemn them as terrorists for using force to try and gain control of their countries. It's something to think about.
Ultimately, what I find most interesting about this discussion is how it demonstrates the resiliency of neoconservatism. That movement is not as dead in American politics as people seem to think. Surely, I would have though Iraq would have rendered conversations like this one largely irrelevant. We are arguing about "we shoulds" when the real question is the "we cans". Iraq demonstrates that we lack the wisdom and strength necessary to remake the world in the kind of humane way we would want to. There simply are too many variables, too many problems, too many unknowns. I look at people who want to invade Darfur by force, and I can't understand what lessons they've taken from Iraq at all. Getting involved in counter-insurgency in an impoverished Muslim country with many competing factions and a virtual guarantee of armed resistance, in a geopolitically volatile geographical area.... We can't take part in that kind of adventure anymore. We don't have the right, in my opinion, and we certainly lack the ability.
Or consider Iran. It is absolutely not clear that the Iranian people would want us to depose the mullahs. Some would, some wouldn't. The imposition of what we think is right at the behest of some but to the contrary of others is simply inimical to democracy. Meanwhile, you're talking about a vast country, with many more people than Iraq, a far more capable conventional military, and the assurance of a far more organized and deliberately anti-occupation insurgency than the one we saw in Iraq. Invading Iran is just a non-starter, or would be, if we had a foreign policy apparatus in this country that hadn't spun off into madness. Do I want the people of Iran to be ruled by oppressive, anti-Semitic theocrats? Of course not. But what I want, what we want, is not always the only question.
I have compassion for the oppressed people of the world. But while I don't think democracy itself will solve the world's problems, I think that honoring democratic values is the best vehicle for acting in the world with integrity and morality, and spreading democracy or peace by force of arms makes no sense and doesn't work. It's a sad choice, but that is only another way to say that it is the kind of choice we are often forced to make in a cruel world.