The use of force always entails grave dangers and human costs, and progressives have been leery particularly since the Vietnam era of supporting it, even to prevent or end mass atrocities, repression, and other systematic human suffering. Wise leaders will always remain wary of war. But wisdom also requires us to acknowledge two dramatic changes in our ability to use force for good. First, in a single generation, our ability to intervene without heavy casualties has improved dramatically. Second, the range of diplomatic and legal tools for legitimizing such interventions has likewise expanded. During this same period, we have been reminded tragically of the real and staggering human cost of inaction, most notably in the 800,000 lives lost in Rwanda. The tendency to feel less moral responsibility for the results of inaction and to overvalue the risks of acting in difficult situations is natural, but it is ultimately indefensible.
These new conditions present progressives today with a historic opportunity—to embrace a slight tipping of the scales toward action in the age-old balance between the horrors of the world and the horrors resulting from the military actions that might prevent them. This shift should be seen more as a marginal adjustment than as a dramatic ideological recalibration, but this new-generation understanding can mean the difference between paralysis and action.
Consider the post-Cold War era in American foreign policy. Putting aside for a moment the responses by George W. Bush’s Administration to September 11, this era offers three major examples of the use of American hard power since the fall of the Berlin Wall: under George H.W. Bush, the Persian Gulf War in response to a dictatorial invasion of a sovereign nation; under Bill Clinton, the Kosovo air campaign to stop ethnic cleansing; and under Barack Obama, the international campaign to oust Moammar Gadhafi from power and prevent attacks on civilians in Libya.
Whether or not one agrees with any or all of these missions, they share significant characteristics: a casus belli that mingled idealistic and realpolitik concerns; a cool (rather than hot) decision to proceed to war; the careful employment of regional and allied support; and the use of targeted, decisive force. It is not surprising in retrospect that Barack Obama claims a strong affinity for the foreign policy of the first President Bush. Seen as a continuum, these interventions represent the arrival of a new era of decisive pragmatism in the threat and use of American force, one in which the U.S. government has greater technological and normative capacity to act, and a growing body of case studies from which to refine its operational decisions to maximize its effectiveness.
Our Evolving Diplomatic and Military Arsenal
Operational developments since the end of the Cold War have substantially improved our capacity to wage smart military operations that are limited in time and scope and employ precise and overwhelming force. This presents progressives with an opportunity—one that is too often seen as a curse—to expand the use of force to advance key values. Our technical capacities, ranging from accuracy of systems intelligence to smart weaponry, now allow for previously impossible operations. Today, we have the ability to conduct missions from the air that historically would have required ground troops. And we possess an admittedly imperfect but highly improved ability to limit collateral damage, including civilian casualties. Among other things, this means fewer bombs can accomplish the same objectives, with early estimates suggesting that the Libyan air campaign required one-third the number of sorties as earlier air wars.
Changes in the capacity to use force reduce the barriers to military action, but they do not eliminate timeless standards for validating violence. Here, too, however, the new century bears witness to dramatic innovations, as the post-Cold War era has finally produced a nimble, complex, and relatively functional source of multilateral legitimacy. During much of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet divide paralyzed the UN and overshadowed or stunted most regional institutions, while universal norms amounted to aspirations on paper rather than widely enforceable absolutes. The collapse of the bipolar world created room for NATO, the Arab League, the European Union, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to broaden their membership and influence. International norms began to look more like laws—some triggering action in the face of genocide or ethnic cleansing, as in Kosovo, and others given force through regional tribunals to hand down judgments, as in the case of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. While the UN Security Council remains the most formal standard for international legitimacy, many nations consider it less representative than regional bodies and less responsive than reality sometimes demands. Today, the United States has a range of options to validate such uses of military might for humanitarian concerns.
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