Broadly speaking, there are two rival schools of foreign policy thought: realism and idealism. Realists tend to see things in terms of pragmatic interests. They emphasize determinism and the objective constraints that necessarily regulate international affairs. Idealists couch their foreign policy in terms of an overarching sense of morality. They emphasize free will and the ability to reshape institutions for the better. They’re the can-do Wilsonian internationalists who aim to spread democracy and freedom to the world. Conservatives have generally tended to be realists, and liberals have long been swayed by idealism.
These days, however, the tables have turned. On the issue of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, conservatives are marching in step behind an idealist impulse to rid the world of rogue regimes, while many liberals are invoking the realist credo to oppose intervention. Op-eds coming out of places like the liberal Brookings Institution have offered the old realist excuse that regime-change is both infeasible and contrary to American interests. Other liberals have made the case that toppling Saddam will destabilize the region and raise oil prices. They contend that Saddam’s ouster won’t necessarily prevent Iraq from producing weapons of mass destruction, and they write off an invasion into Iraq on the grounds that the United States could lose thousands of troops in the process.
All of these objections carry some weight, and surely it would be imprudent to invade Iraq right now, given America’s deepening rift with the Arab world. But that’s not a reason to reject unconditionally Saddam’s removal, as many on the left have done. In fact, we idealist liberals who favor a foreign policy that tries to make the world a better place should view overthrowing the world’s most oppressive dictator as a thoroughly liberal cause.
The debate over toppling Saddam has largely been framed by two issues: Iraq’s continued efforts to build an arsenal of mass destruction and its sustained support of international terrorism. The Bush administration and its hawkish supporters have tried to justify regime-change as a critical step in America’s war on terror. Opponents, like The Nation’s Richard Falk, have responded that America cannot wage a “just war” against Iraq except as a proportional response to some specific wrong done to us.
But this debate has largely sidestepped the real issue that should serve to unite liberals and conservatives: Nearly every other human rights cause in the world pales in comparison to the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Saddam is one of the world’s worst war criminals. He is a brutal butcher of his own people, and has been intent on acquiring biological, chemical and nuclear weapons to be used toward ends we can’t even fathom. He has attacked four of his country’s neighbors unprovoked. He routinely employs the most grisly torture tactics on political prisoners and treats rape and murder as normal instruments of governance. His gross war-criminal status ought to be a sufficient casus belli to justify his overthrow.
Last month, a remarkable New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg described in gruesome detail Saddam’s cold-blooded campaign to slaughter the nation’s Kurdish minority. During the late 1980s, about 100,000 Kurds were murdered — many by nerve and mustard gas — in what Human Rights Watch has rightly deemed a case of genocide. There’s little doubt that if the U.S.-British “no-fly” zone were lifted and the United Nations were to pull out of northern Iraq, Saddam would quickly return to his old ethnic cleansing habits. And yet many liberals balk at removing Saddam from power.
This isn’t the first time the left has shied away from humanitarian interventionism. In 1999, The Nation notoriously opposed American involvement in Kosovo on the grounds that it would cause more suffering than it could possibly alleviate. One year later, the magazine was chagrined to admit that the Kosovo mission had been a stunning humanitarian victory. Milosevic had quickly capitulated to NATO demands, and Kosovar Albanians refugees had been rapidly repatriated.
Despite success in Kosovo, many on the left are once again finding it difficult to come to grips with the fact that supporting human rights sometimes requires military force. But if liberals have fallen away from their idealist roots, Bush has oddly moved in that direction. Despite calling for a new “humility” in American foreign policy during his 2000 campaign, Bush has stepped up to the plate with a simple, consistent, idealistic foreign policy. However intellectually incoherent Bush’s Manichean “axis of evil” rhetoric may be, one thing that can said of it is that it’s morally right on.
Liberal idealists ought to be licking their chops at the prospect of bringing down Iraq’s genocidal Baathist regime. If the United States can orchestrate the replacement of Saddam by a tolerant, democratic government — and do it in a measured, reasonable way — it will be a humanitarian triumph and one of the greatest successes of liberal foreign policy ever. Now if only the recalcitrant liberal realists could recall their idealist roots and get on board.
Joshua Foer is a sophomore in Silliman College.