Following Familiar Footsteps

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Where's Madeleine Albright when we need her? As the Bush Administration inches deeper into nation building in Iraq and closer to peacekeeping in Liberia, it would be nice to have an official around who actually believed that building nations and keeping the peace were worthy goals of U.S. foreign policy.

Albright did. During her time as President Bill Clinton's ambassador to the U.N. and then as Secretary of State, she argued that the U.S. was the world's "indispensable nation," its muscle essential to solving humanitarian crises and eradicating their causes, wherever they arose. For their promiscuous deployment of American force in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, she and her boss were much derided. Republicans thought the Clinton Administration frittered away American power in places that weren't worth it, ignoring matters of vital U.S. national interest in favor of a feel-good, bleeding-heart preoccupation with the suffering of those unfortunate to live in places of no consequence. In a biting criticism, Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University in a 1996 article in Foreign Affairs dubbed the Clintonian strategy "foreign policy as social work." Such an approach, Mandelbaum argued, was bound to be both prohibitively expensive and unlikely to sustain the support of the American public.

I called Mandelbaum last week and asked him whether he thought social work was now in style. "Indeed," he said, and so it is. In Iraq today, U.S. soldiers are building soccer fields and standing guard over girls' schools. This is being done in the name of an Administration whose members openly despised Clinton's habit of using the armed forces for missions short of war. ("We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten," said Condoleezza Rice, now National Security Adviser, to the New York Times in 2000.) As for Liberia, all the key phrases last week — the need for clearly defined missions and exit strategies, the desperate attempt to swear that, honest, only a couple of hundred American soldiers would ever go to West Africa — were so reminiscent of the mid-1990s that at any minute I expected someone to do the Macarena. A U.S. intervention in Liberia, let us be clear, would be for purely humanitarian, Albrightish motives. Notwithstanding the role the U.S. played in establishing the country, if you think what happens in Liberia is of the slightest importance to American interests, conventionally defined, you've spent too long away with the fairies.

There's more. The Administration justified the war in Iraq principally by alleging that Saddam Hussein's regime had — or would soon have — weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the U.S. That was a pure national-interest case, for there's nothing so threatening to a nation than weapons that might incinerate millions of its people. The trouble is, we have not found any such weapons, which has led some Administration supporters to shift their ground. Whether or not Saddam had nukes, they argue, his rule was so vile that getting rid of it was a service to mankind. That is true. But if the test for deploying American power to remove a regime is not the danger it poses to the U.S. but its wickedness, why stop at Iraq? As Mandelbaum wrote seven years ago, "The world is a big place filled with distressed people." Why not ease the suffering of those in, say, Burma or Zimbabwe?

Maybe that's an unfair question, for nobody expects a nation's foreign policy to be neatly consistent. But the fact that it can be asked at all illustrates the dangers that await any Administration that strays from the national interest as the lodestar of its policy. The point, as Mandelbaum says, is "not that social work is a bad thing." On the contrary, it can be positively noble in intent and execution. Are we really to say that it was a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo (where there was about as much of a direct threat to American interests as there is in Liberia) when, absent such intervention, the wars of the Yugoslav succession could be raging still?

But any Administration that treads on this turf needs to make — and remake — its case. There is nothing wrong with trying to make the world a better place, ameliorate suffering or overthrow tyranny. But if you are going to spend American blood and treasure to do all that in places that do not appear to pose a direct threat to the U.S., you had better be prepared to explain what you are doing and why. Successive Administrations during the Vietnam War were unable to do that. So, for the most part, were Albright and Clinton. Unless George W. Bush is extremely lucky over the next 15 months, his political future will depend on whether he can.