It is not only Bill Kristol who could say just after NATO’s attack on Libya: “President Obama is taking us to war in another Muslim country. Good for him.” Kristol’s promotion of wars of liberation has been U.S. policy for the past 25 years. Kristol’s philosophy has informed and heavily influenced U.S. foreign policy. This philosophy must be clearly spelled out and rejected if the disastrous U.S. interventions are to be brought to a halt. Bill Kristol’s way has been the U.S. way for 25 years, and it’s been the wrong way.
By its wars, invasions and meddling, the U.S. government has harmed Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine and Syria. It should have kept America out of these places and left their peoples alone. The most basic philosophy that justifies all this intervention gone wrong must itself be faulty. What is this U.S. philosophy? Bill Kristol articulates it, one clear example being here on March 28, 2011.
Kristol mentions five wars that the U.S. was involved in from 1991 to 2011, all in Muslim countries: Kuwait, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. He calls these “liberations” and denies that they were invasions. He calls them honorable fights for liberty. He thinks they further American interests and principles. These wars, he claims, are “for the national interest, for national greatness, for the exceptional American role in the liberation of peoples around the globe.”
It’s 100 percent obvious that they have never furthered the American national interest in peace and goodwill, in national security, in the environment, in friendship to other peoples, or in well-being and wealth of the American people. It is entirely clear that the so-called “liberation of peoples” has entailed their death and destruction, the destruction of their lives and cultures, and setting them back. We’ve degraded the environment everywhere we went. It’s pure fantasy to think that any of this contributes to the “national greatness” of America. The exceptional American role has been one of great crimes against humanity.
But we understand what Kristol imagines, even if none of it comes true in reality. He imagines that America is exceptional because of its principles of freedom. There is truth in that idea, even if it’s myth when we look closely at it. Freedom and free peoples remain an aspiration. He imagines that America is exceptional in its power. That too is truth in certain respects. We know that such power is definitely limited in many ways. The point is still Kristol’s assumption that this power can and should be used for “good”, such as by liberating unfree peoples.
The idea that the U.S. can apply its power for the express purpose of liberating peoples has proven to be wrong for 25 years now. Before that it was wrong in Vietnam. It didn’t even resolve the Korean War. Exporting a free American-like nation-state system has run up against stubborn obstacles. Japan and Germany were reconstructed after World War 2, but they had homogeneous peoples with a set of characteristics of potential leaders, economic development, education, tradition, ethnicity, tribe and religion, etc. that seemed to allow it. Plus they were utterly defeated at great cost to their populations. Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Syria are very different kinds of situations than were Japan and Germany. The process of “liberation” has been through war, and that alone has set in motion forces that checked if not checkmated the attempt to build back up a working society and state. On top of that come all the other factors that thwart an American-style outcome. The fact is that the U.S. has not been able to “liberate” peoples it deemed unfree. It cannot do it; it cannot reposition and regroup people, tribes, religions and clans into the kind of society and political system it aims at.
Where else do Kristol and this neocon thinking go wrong? They go wrong in thinking that Americans should initiate military actions in other countries to liberate them. The mistaken model for this is the memory of liberating France and Germany from Nazi rule and liberating Pacific countries from Japanese rule. These were, however, cases involving aggressions and subsequent defense. Another model is the liberation in eastern Europe when the Cold War ended; but these didn’t involve America in fighting wars or initiating violence to free peoples.
Even if America stands for freedom and possesses exceptional power, we have no obligation to free other peoples whom we consider unfree, using force unilaterally or not using it. There is no such moral law that says “free other unfree peoples”. There is no greatness or honor in trying. Under the Golden Rule, we do not expect or allow others to invade us and our country in attempts to free us as they see fit; therefore, we should not do that to them, even if we think they are unfree. The U.N. Charter even forbids such interventions.
The U.S. government cannot make the claim that it is freeing or liberating some people when its own people are unfree, and this is the case: Americans are not a free people. Kristol’s whole case for intervention, which the U.S. has adopted, rests on the assumption that this is a free country. Kristol assumes we know what freedom is and have it. This implies we can tell when another people is unfree. This assumption is false. In countless areas of U.S. law, we have abridged freedom. Do we attack other governments because they have socialized medicine while we have Obamacare? Because they have a draft to get an army and we pay volunteers? Because they do not execute murderers and we do? We can make an indefinitely long list of such matters in which the “freedom” here and abroad do not match up. Are we to say Iran is unfree because it has a Supreme Leader who is a man of religion? If we say it’s unfree, should our government go to war on our behalf to free the Iranians? Can that be justified morally when we really cannot even assess our own freedom accurately, much less theirs?
Kristol finds roots for his idea in Reagan. JFK’s stirring words provide further roots, but also important provisos:
“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Nice-sounding but the fact is that there are limits and we do not pay any price. So, let’s ask “Where?” Assure the survival of liberty, but where? In America only? Was JFK referring to America? Or in the homeland of any “friend”? How grandiose or extensive is this pledge? And why make it? It was made in the context of a Cold War and JFK wanted to emphasize that his new generation wasn’t going to back down from the Soviet Union and Red China. Clinton, Bush and Obama faced no such challenge. Bush manufactured a big challenge by transforming 9/11 into a war on terror. The attempts of post-JFK and post-Reagan leaders to find big dragons to slay has led them into exaggerating enemies (like Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi) and into wars against puny foes, only to discover that their power to reconstruct societies and states was extremely slight.
Kristol’s philosophy, which is the philosophy of American exceptionalism and interventionism, takes the challenge into the entire world, not excluding Russia or any country. It obliterates the lines between defense and offense, defense and aggression. Fellow travelers like Nuland and Kagan will take on Russia and China if they make the decisions. JFK wasn’t out to revolutionize the Soviet Union. Kristol has no such limits, his inspiration being the collapse of the Soviet empire. Russia is fair game under his philosophy, nuclear power or not; and the provocations to be initiated are all according to his and the U.S. perceptions of freedom elsewhere. We have already seen that Kristol and the U.S. leadership do not fathom or respect other societies, civilizations, religions, ethnicities, and political frameworks. They are generally in no position to judge the liberty of another society, much less to interfere and intervene. In those cases in which aggression or genocide are clear, the U.N. may find its way to intervention. But this has been far, far from the case in the past 25 years. Presidents have instead reached for some pretext to intervene and some event they could grasp, like gassing one’s own people.
Contrast also JFK’s methods that are laid out in that same inaugural address. In so many words, he calls for an end to the nuclear arms race and requests civility in its place, plus he says
“But let us never fear to negotiate.
“Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
“Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms–and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.”
The Kristol philosophy and U.S. approach have been to demand, sanction, stir up, attack and control. They have not been that of JFK in this speech.
Hillary Clinton promised clearly to continue and intensify the Kristol-neocon philosophy. Donald Trump expressed a variety of doubts about it. I do not think that Trump is going to make a grand speech in which he lays out a policy of foreign non-intervention. It would be a pleasant surprise if he did.