Of course, U.S. military force may be necessary, but it can never be sufficient on its own. This is where the judgment, morality, and strategic vision of politicians and policymakers can make the crucial difference. The United States has not been the “force for good” that many Americans would like to think it’s been. There is a tragic history of intervention abroad that more Americans should be aware of, whether it’s overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Latin America or backing brutal dictators in the Middle East. There is no reason to think the U.S. is necessarily doomed to repeat those mistakes indefinitely. But even if it was, there would still be instances where only U.S. military force could be counted on to stop genocide.
The alternative to a proactive and internationalist U.S. policy is to “do no harm,” and this might seem a safe fallback position: Foreign countries and cultures are too complicated to understand, so instead of trying to understand them, let’s at least not make the situation worse. The idea that the U.S. can “do no harm,” however, depends on the fiction that the most powerful nation in the world can ever be truly “neutral” in foreign conflicts, not just when it acts, but also when it doesn’t. Neutrality, or silence, is often complicity, something that was once the moral, urgent claim of the Left. The fiction of neutrality is growing more dangerous, as we enter a period of resurgent authoritarianism, anti-refugee incitement, and routine mass killing.
This is the built-in contradiction of what might be called the “anti-imperialist Left.” They are against empire, and there is only one country powerful enough to reasonably be considered “imperial.” (Russia, of course, engages in bloody imperial ventures, but it gets a pass since it is acting against the United States.) But to insist that the fundamental problem in today’s world is American imperialism is to have only the most outdated “principles”—principles that, in the case of Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya, have left, or would have left, the most vulnerable and suffering without any recourse to safety and protection.
If the United States announced tomorrow morning that it would no longer use its military for anything but to defend the borders of the homeland, many would instinctively cheer, perhaps not quite realizing what this would mean in practice. But that is the conundrum the Left is now facing. A world without mass slaughter, of the sort of we are seeing every day in Syria, cannot ever come to be without American power. But perhaps this will prove one of the positive legacies of the Obama era: showing that the alternative of American disinterest and disengagement is not necessarily better. For those, though, that care about ideology—holding on to the idea that U.S. military force is somehow inherently bad—more than they care about actual human outcomes, the untenability of their position will persist. That, too, will be a tragedy, since at a time when many on the Right are turning jingoistic or isolationist, there is a need for voices that not just believe in U.S. power, but believe that that power—still, for now, preeminent—can be used for better, more moral ends.