With apologies to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…
The reasons for American disagreement over President Barack Obama’s decision to go to war in Libya can be found in historical and fundamental differences over the proper role of the United States in world affairs.
While it’s easy to see any argument over US foreign policy in the traditional terms of internationalists versus isolationists, the situation is more complex than that. The armed intervention by the US and its Western allies in Libya has created some strange political bedfellows.
Republican neoconservatives and many Democratic liberals have supported the attacks on the forces of Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Republican libertarians like Rand Paul and antiwar Democrats like Michael Moore, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich have lined up in opposition.
So it isn’t a simple case of Right versus Left, or conservative versus liberal, or Republican versus Democrat. Any analysis of the reaction to the Libyan intervention must move beyond common political labels.
Foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead has developed an explanatory model that helps make better sense of the situation. In his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, Mead argued that the thinking of four American leaders—Alexander Hamilton, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson—shaped our approach to global politics.
Mead summarized these four schools of thought in a 2010 Foreign Policy piece:
…Hamiltonians share the first Treasury secretary’s belief that a strong national government and a strong military should pursue a realist global policy and that the government can and should promote economic development and the interests of American business at home and abroad. Wilsonians agree with Hamiltonians on the need for a global foreign policy, but see the promotion of democracy and human rights as the core elements of American grand strategy. Jeffersonians dissent from this globalist consensus; they want the United States to minimize its commitments and, as much as possible, dismantle the national-security state. Jacksonians are today’s Fox News watchers. They are populists suspicious of Hamiltonian business links, Wilsonian do-gooding, and Jeffersonian weakness.
American foreign policymakers have been able to draw on these different schools at different times, Mead has argued, allowing them to fashion flexible and effective strategies. Wilsonian values of democratic change and respect for human rights have been particularly appealing around the world, leading “the most active, intelligent, and forward-looking elements in other countries regard the United States sympathetically.”
Mead noted that Senator Obama campaigned on a Jeffersonian platform in 2008 (calling for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq) but, after some agonizing, has adopted a more Wilsonian position as President Obama (endorsing a troop surge in Afghanistan and waging a greatly expanded “war-by-drone” against Islamic extremists). The Libyan “humanitarian intervention” advocated by Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Hillary Clinton is unabashedly Wilsonian.
President George W. Bush and the neocons advising him were also Wilsonian in their aggressive promotion of democracy in the Middle East. George H.W. Bush approached foreign policy from a Hamiltonian perspective—thus he stopped well short of seeking regime change in Iraq, unlike his son.
Jeffersonians split into two groups, but both think American foreign policy “should be less concerned about spreading democracy abroad than about safeguarding it at home.” Those on the left generally reject the use of force, and want the resources spent on foreign wars directed to domestic needs. Left-of-center Jeffersonians favor limited government overseas and expansive government at home. A second group of Jeffersonians, traditional libertarians (and civil libertarians), want limited government, period. They heartily dislike the taxes (or borrowing) needed to pay for American military adventures and the funding of a permanent military-industrial complex.
The Jacksonians and foreign policy
Most middle-class Americans are Jacksonians, according to Mead, and have a populist suspicion of the New World Order schemes of Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. Jacksonians have supplied America’s warriors since the first Scots-Irish emigrated to the colonies, and their heartland support is vital to any successful lasting military operation.
Jacksonians place America and Americans first, and as nationalists are wary of threats to American sovereignty. They aren’t wild about free trade or international organizations, like the United Nations. If the US commits its military overseas, Jacksonians believe in applying overwhelming force and in achieving total victory—they hold little interest in “nation-building” or peace-keeping operations.
American presidents need to persuade Jacksonian voters that their foreign policy safeguards the homeland and supports the economic well-being of the average person. Mead made the point in Special Providence that American elites had lost the confidence of middle Americans, and that judgment seems as trenchant now as it did in 2001. Mead wrote then:
Hamiltonian trade policy looks to many Americans like a scheme to drive Americans’ wages down for the sake of corporate profits. Wilsonian support for humanitarian interventions looks like the road to a never-ending series of expensive, morally ambiguous, and potentially bloody engagements. As always, the young men and women on the front lines in these interventions will not be drawn primarily from the homes of the elites… Jeffersonian squeamishness about American power and the use of force strikes Jacksonian sensibilities as weak and muddleheaded, while the Jeffersonian critiques of the motives and morals of American foreign policy seem almost anti-American.
George W. Bush built a Wilsonian-Jacksonian coalition with American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Jacksonians supported war in Afghanistan as an appropriate response to 9/11. They were convinced by Bush that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction represented a threat to American national security, and backed the second Gulf War. Popular enthusiasm for US intervention in Iraq faded only when it became clear that the WMD danger had been exaggerated, and that a long-term occupation and “bringing democracy to the Middle East” was part of the Bush agenda.
Obama’s Libyan challenge
Obama hopes to recreate the Bush coalition for his Libyan involvement. By casting the war in Libya in moral terms, he wins Wilsonian backing. By arguing that the intervention is in the national interest, he hopes to attract Jacksonian support. And to hedge his bets, and to assuage the vocal Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic party, he insists the US part will be limited and brief in duration.
There are some glaring contradictions built into this strategy. Obama’s case for humanitarian war in Libya appears hypocritical when contrasted with his passivity in the face of human rights abuses by American allies in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of the slaughter in Somalia or the Congo. Wilsonian morality can look like moralism, as Mead has noted.
Moreover, many Jacksonians are suspicious of the multinational basis of the Libyan action. They are disturbed by Obama’s apparent preference for UN Security Council action versus Congressional approval when sending Americans into harm’s way. They worry it cedes American sovereignty. As nationalists, Jacksonians have no problem with unilateralism.
Further, many Jacksonians (and many Jeffersonians) remain concerned about the economy and high levels of unemployment, especially among the middle class and working poor. They question the wisdom of another costly military intervention in the Middle East and wonder whether the US can quickly extricate itself from Libya, as Obama has promised.
The political reality: Obama may struggle with his inner Jefferson, in Mead’s clever phrase, but he can safely assume liberal Democrats will vote for his reelection in 2012 even if he pursues—in a limited way—Wilsonian policies. He can’t afford to lose Jacksonian swing voters, however. Many will accept humanitarian interventions, like Libya, but only if they are short and decisive and don’t appear to be derailing domestic progress.
In explaining his decision to act in Libya, President Obama rightly appealed to an instinctive American desire to shield and protect the vulnerable (“Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”) Few Americans would reject the limited use of American force to stop genocide as a last resort and when local or regional options are exhausted. But if the Libyan intervention ends up moving beyond that limited goal, and US troops find themselves into the middle of a tribal civil war, or American air support brings Islamist extremists to power in Tripoli, then the response will be significantly different.
Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
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