Against Liberal Intervention

John R. MacArthur

The United States vetoed any attempt to reinforce U.N. troops in Rwanda, leaving 800,000 to die on the altars of national sovereignty and Western indifference.
During the early phase of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, I came across a scathing critique of the war in a suprising locale, written by the unlikeliest (or so I thought) accuser of the Bush-Blair axis of imperialism.

The publication was Conrad Black’s militantly right-wing, pro-war British weekly, The Spectator, and the author was named Hitchens—not the putatively “leftist” one named Christopher, but his supposedly “reactionary” brother, Peter.

In its high rhetorical pitch the essay was pure Hitchens, regardless of given name. But there was no confusing the brothers after the first paragraph. Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to Peter Hitchens, was a “left-wing war,” a destructive enterprise that provided “the excuse for censorship, organized lying, regulation, and taxation,” a “paradise for the busybody and the narc” that “damages family life and wounds the Church, all the while polluting the minds of millions with scenes of horror and death.”

Remarkable, especially coming after my old ally C. Hitchens’ celebrated defection from the leftish, anti-American peace camp to the bipartisan war party. But a left-wing war? Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz et al. in the same ideological basket as Eugene Debs, William Sloane Coffin, and Michael Moore?

At first glance, Peter Hitchens’ thesis was preposterous—the application of raw, unilateral military power (and the subsequent war profiteering by big business) seems a rather authoritarian idea more in keeping with the brutal dogma of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan than with nice liberal notions of international cooperation, humanitarian aid, and peaceful disarmament. But on closer examination I realized that Peter Hitchens was on to something, for if you think that namby-pamby niceness is all the liberal left has been pushing the last two decades, you haven’t been paying attention.

Indeed, liberals have been lobbying since the early ’80s for more aggressive “humanitarian” interventions that would override the niceties of international law, the sovereignty of nations, and even U.N. peacekeeping efforts. To the extent that the Bush-Blair doctrine of pre-emptive war encompasses human rights and the “right” to overthrow tyrants, this one was very much a “left-wing” war.

Of course, I don’t buy George Bush’s human rights rationale for Gulf War II any more than I bought his father’s epiphany in 1990 that Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler. Too many murderous American clients, including Saddam, have gone in and out of favor since 1898 (the year we “liberated” Cuba from Spain) for me to take seriously the altruistic prattle emanating from this White House.

But a surprising number of liberals did take Bush at his word (as they had his father) whenever he turned misty-eyed about Baathist atrocities (real and fabricated), as well as the urgent need for “liberating” the Iraqi people. Behind their dovish compassion lay a ferocious streak of Wilsonian hawkishness that had first presented itself during the Bosnia crisis in the early ’90s.

It was then that human rights hawks adopted the principle of “liberal intervention” laid down in the ’80s by two Paris-based intellectuals, the international law professor Mario Bettati and the physician-activist Bernard Kouchner. Eventually, as Ian Buruma recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, the rhetorical grandstanding by Kouchner—“the day will come … when we are able to say … ‘Mr. Dictator, we are going to stop you preventively from oppressing, torturing and exterminating your ethnic minorities’”—took hold and nice liberals started sounding like nasty, pre-emptive militarists.


I recall a hair-raising speech by the currency speculator-turned-human-rights-promoter George Soros, in which he argued for creation of a U.N. rapid deployment military force that could intervene anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice to prevent the powerful from killing the weak—by killing the powerful. Around the same time, it became fashionable on the left (especially in the neighborhood inhabited by Susan Sontag and David Reiff) to denounce the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia for not being sufficiently anti-Serb, the Serbs being ultra-nationalist “fascists.” At a human rights group board meeting I heard a well-known U.S. television journalist actually refer to the blue-helmeted soldiers in Sarajevo as “capos in a concentration camp,” who functioned as oppressors, not protectors, of the noble Bosnians.

“Liberal” military interventions by the United States and its allies followed in due course. Bush I had already played the human rights card by promoting the fake baby incubator atrocity in Kuwait, a brilliant maneuver that undermined both the “no blood for oil” and the “no more Vietnams” lobbies. Then came Somalia, which was a disaster for Americans and Somalis alike; Haiti, where the United States intervened in support of the sometimes repressive Bertrand Aristide; and lastly, Kosovo, which achieved reverse ethnic cleansing of Serbs on behalf of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Like Saddam, Slobodan Milosevic was alternately denounced by do-gooders on the left as a Hitler-like fascist and “the last Stalinist,” first cousins to Christopher Hitchens’ “Islamic Fascists.”


Kosovo was the clearest assertion of the new doctrine of liberal intervention, a legal and moral template for the overthrow of Saddam. According to its critics, the NATO bombing campaign was a pre-emptive war in clear violation of international law (Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, which had attacked no other country). But liberals were happy because the 78 days of aerial mayhem led to the eventual removal of Milosevic from power.

“Leftists” more radical than Kouchner, like Paul Berman, now seek to expand the concept of liberal pre-emption by claiming Abraham Lincoln as their patron saint. Lincoln, they say, was bent on liberating the whole world, not just the southern states—a foolish exaggeration about a practical politician who nearly wrecked his career by opposing America’s imperialist invasion of undemocratic Mexico in 1846 (and who initially wanted to send the slaves back to Africa). It’s no coincidence that President Bush has chosen the USS Abraham Lincoln for his welcome- home photo op.

Where does all this leave the liberal constitutionalists like me, who opposed all the aforementioned interventions? I certainly subscribe to the principle of universal human rights, just as I support the corrupt and imperfect United Nations. But I understand that the Enlightenment ideals codified by the United Nations stem from the (thus far) historically unique Nazi terror. And I suspect that all attempts to compensate for the lack of pre-emptive intervention against Hitler are essentially symbolic. Look how virtuous and tough we are, says Berman, compared with those weak-kneed French and British appeasers of the ’30s.

The problem with symbolic military gestures is that they kill innocent bystanders as surely as do acts of naked aggression that are devoid of good intentions. Total the many thousands of civilian dead (or just dead women and children) in the first Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo/Serbia and Gulf War II, and you already have a pretty good argument against liberal intervention.

Moreover, war unleashes death in unpredictable ways; I think, for example, that the NATO bombing led to the death of more Albanians than would have died from nonintervention—–by sowing panic and granting the Serbs a pretext for settling scores with the KLA. (It’s forgotten that Milosevic had agreed to U.N. monitors in Kosovo, just not in Serbia proper).

As a liberal, I wish the French had invaded the Rhineland in 1936 when Hitler remilitarized the region in violation of the Versailles peace agreement. But as an American liberal, I also wish that my fellow citizens believed that charity begins at home; I wish the United States had taken in millions of persecuted Jews before Hitler could liquidate them; I wish we’d offered a haven to tens of thousands of Bosnians—Muslim, Orthodox Christian, and Catholic—for we could certainly have afforded it. And I wish that we had listened to a liberal Swedish internationalist named Blix, instead of a right-wing Texas nationalist named Bush.

Liberal interventionism has given moral cover to the ugliest, most undemocratic impulses seen in this country since Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act (which put Eugene Victor Debs in jail for opposing the war) and unleashed his attorney general’s infamous “Palmer raids” against “subversives” (John Ashcroft must envy the free hand of Alexander Mitchell Palmer). Worse still, Liberal interventionism has defaced the Constitution with the forged signature of Lincoln, written in the blood of Arabs who will never stroll on the Mall.

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John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. He’s the author of The Selling of Free Trade and You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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