Barack Obama says preventing genocide isn’t a good enough reason to stay in Iraq.
“By that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now — where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife — which we haven’t done,” he told the Associated Press. “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done. Those of us who care about Darfur don’t think it would be a good idea.”
It’s worth pointing out a key difference between the potential genocide in Iraq and the heart-wrenching slaughters in Congo and Sudan: The latter aren’t our fault. But if genocide unfolds in Iraq after American troops depart, it would be hard to argue that we weren’t at least partly to blame. Yes, the mass murder would have more immediate authors than the United States of America, but we would undeniably be responsible, at least in part, for giving a green light to genocide. Obama offers precisely that green light in his proposed Iraq War De-escalation Act.
Some advocates of withdrawal try to maintain the moral high ground by arguing that there won’t be genocidal slaughter — though that sounds like self-delusion to me. Most close observers of the situation believe that if the U.S. were to sail out of Iraq, it would be on a river of Iraqi blood.
“The only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into a Lebanon- or Bosnia-like maelstrom,” a new report from the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution concludes, “is 135,000 American troops.” Rapid withdrawal, the report says, could bring “a humanitarian nightmare” in which “we should expect hundreds of thousands (conceivably even millions) of people to die.”
New York Times reporter John Burns, who has won plaudits across the ideological spectrum for the clarity of his reporting, recently told Charlie Rose of PBS, “It seems to me incontrovertible that the most likely outcome of an American withdrawal any time soon would be cataclysmic violence, and I find that to be widely agreed among Iraqis, including Iraqis who widely opposed the invasion.”
Ultimately, it’s unknowable what would — or will — happen if the U.S. “redeploys” until it happens. But what I find fascinating is the growing consensus around the Obama withdrawal-is-justifiable position. (If you think this unfair to Obama, feel free to call it the Hillary Doctrine or the Edwards Corollary or the Richardson Rule.)
Liberals used to be the ones who argued that sending U.S. troops abroad was a small price to pay to stop genocide; now they argue that genocide is a small price to pay to bring U.S. troops home.
President Clinton lied in his 1998 apology to survivors of the Rwandan massacre when he suggested that he and his staff hadn’t known genocide was taking place. Documents obtained subsequently under the Freedom of Information Act in 2004 by activist groups showed that the Clinton administration referred to the slaughter as “genocide” in its internal discussions but refused to say so publicly because Clinton had decided against intervention.
“Genocide can occur anywhere. It is not an African phenomenon,” he said in 1998 as part of his apology. “We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence.” Thus, Clinton nicely articulated a moral principle whose moral authority he excluded himself from.
Nonetheless, this principle has saturated much of the recent discussion about Darfur. Indeed, as historian and columnist Niall Ferguson noted, Obama called for an increased military commitment in Sudan, including possibly sending NATO, in order to prevent genocide just two years ago.
There’s been so much talk about how conservative foreign policy’s moral credibility has been demolished under President Bush. Maybe. But what of liberal credibility? In the 1990s, amid the debates about Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the broad outline of the debate had conservatives advocating a narrower definition of the national interest while liberals argued — and I often agreed with them — for a more expansive one that included a heavy dose of moralism. Finally, liberals seemed to have shaken off the Vietnam syndrome and embraced an overly optimistic but benign foreign policy of nation-building and do-goodery.
Conservatives are at least still arguing about the national interest — but they’re also the ones touting the moral imperative of preventing genocide and even the need for nation-building. Where is the principle in the hash of liberal foreign policy today? How does liberalism recover? If you can justify causing genocide in order to end a nation-building exercise that — unlike similar efforts elsewhere — is fundamentally linked to our national interest, then how can you ever return to arguing that we should get into the nation-building and genocide-stopping business when it’s explicitly not in our interest?
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