The war on terror and the long death of liberal interventionism

By removing all troops from Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks’ 20th anniversary, President Joe Biden sent a none-too-subtle message: He wanted America, and the world, to see that he was turning the page — that the war on terror era was well and truly over. In a speech last week justifying his decision, he stated the rationale explicitly: “It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of Biden’s seriousness. US forces remain engaged in counterterrorism operations across the globe. After an ISIS suicide bombing at Kabul airport during the withdrawal killed an estimated 170 people, including 13 American service members, the US launched drone strikes against ISIS targets in Afghanistan — killing at least 10 Afghan civilians. And some of the attacks on Biden’s policy from the Washington foreign policy establishment suggest its appetite for war is hardly sated.

Yet the Afghan withdrawal shows a significant break with the post-9/11 order — at least among liberals.

Since the 1990s, a dominant military paradigm on the center left has been liberal interventionism: the notion that the United States has the right, even the obligation, to intervene in far-off countries to protect human life and freedom. Liberal interventionism emerged out of a specific constellation of events: the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the US as the world’s lone superpower, and the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. It paired a morally righteous critique of US foreign policy with post-Cold War optimism about America’s ability to improve the world.

But in subsequent decades, the intellectual scaffolding propping up liberal interventionism took hit after hit.

9/11 was a key inflection point. The attack prompted leading liberal interventionists to marry their doctrines to the Bush administration’s war on terror, becoming some of the most prominent boosters for a disastrous war in Iraq waged by a Republican president. Later, the Obama administration’s experiences in Afghanistan and Libya reinforced lessons about the dangers of intervention.

More recently, an expansionist Russia and rising China raised questions about America’s capability to intervene in countries with competing influences. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and subsequent attempts to overturn the 2020 election revealed urgent threats to liberal democracy — not abroad, but here at home.

As a result, the center of intellectual gravity among liberals has shifted.

“The most remarkable fact about liberals today is that, aside from a few, they’ve all learned their lesson,” says Samuel Moyn, a law professor at Yale University and repentant liberal ex-hawk. “Joe Biden’s choices are kind of inexplicable absent that.”

Liberal interventionism is being supplanted by a loose alternative that could be termed “fortress liberalism”: a belief that saving liberal democracy means defending it where it already exists — and that crusading wars for democracy and human rights are distractions at best and disasters at worst.

This is not to say that America has gotten out of the war business. Biden’s administration requested $753 billion in national security funding from Congress for 2021. The Washington foreign policy consensus is still quite hawkish, entertaining military solutions for problems ranging from ISIS affiliates in Somalia to Russia’s war in Ukraine to Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea.

But new wars waged on behalf of human rights and democracy are not really on the table (at least on the left). Part of the reason the criticism of the Afghan withdrawal has been so harsh is that some liberals are reckoning with the fall of one of their gods — conceding that, for better or worse, the era of liberal interventionism is over.

The rise of liberal interventionism

In the 1990s, a geopolitical shift brought forth a more globally assertive, interventionist liberalism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States without any serious rivals. During the Cold War, America had built a military capable of intervening relatively swiftly around the world. Absent any peer or even near-peer threat, the United States was free to engage in wars of choice with a reach unmatched by any previous global power.

Now the United States stood as the world’s first liberal hegemon. The US victory in the Cold War was seen not merely as a matter of power politics, but as a vindication of liberal democracy as a political model.

“We were on a euphoric high having won the Cold War,” says Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). The country “had really bought into this narrative of the march of the liberal democracy and that America’s force could really facilitate that.”

This zeitgeist, America’s “unipolar moment” at “the end of history,” created the conditions under which the United States could become a nation that could project its moral ideals — by force if need be.

Two events pushed the American liberal elite toward embracing this vision: genocides in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.

In Rwanda, a campaign of murder by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority killed an estimated 800,000 people in just 100 days. At the time, United Nations peacekeepers were on the ground in Rwanda but prohibited from intervening by their UN mandate. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of the UN force, pleaded with UN officials to let him do something — and they refused. The Clinton administration was also warned of an impending mass slaughter; the White House not only did nothing but worked to block UN action.

Susan Rice, who would later become one of President Barack Obama’s national security advisers, was at the time a Clinton official working on peacekeeping issues. The experience, for her, was shattering. “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Rice told liberal interventionist Samantha Power in a 2001 interview.

A little over a year after Rwanda, a different UN force in Bosnia declared the town of Srebrenica a “safe zone”: a place where civilians fleeing the fighting consuming the Balkans could stay under international protection. Neither the peacekeepers nor prior NATO intervention in the conflict deterred Serbian forces from seizing control of the town. They systematically murdered Bosnian Muslim residents of Srebrenica, killing thousands in a matter of mere days.

Power, who would go on to serve with Rice in the Obama administration as UN ambassador, reported from the ground during the Bosnian conflict — witnessing slaughter that, she argued, could plausibly have been prevented with a more assertive NATO response.

In her 2002 book A Problem From Hell, Power asserts that Rwanda and Srebrenica were part of a pattern; America’s problem historically has not been its capacity to stop genocide, but its will. “No US president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no US president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence,” she wrote. “It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.”

This was the essence of post-Cold War liberal interventionism: the notion that an absent America was a complicit America.

It was a vision of a superpower embracing its moral calling, protecting human rights wherever they needed defense, and it was a doctrine that became influential among liberal intellectuals and pundits after Rwanda and Bosnia. Among its most prominent advocates were the editors of the New Republic, the closest thing to a house organ for American liberalism at the time.

Near the end of Clinton’s presidency, these thinkers’ ideas received real-world vindication.

In 1998, war once again broke out in the Balkans, this time in Kosovo. Once again, ethnic Serbian forces singled out a civilian group — Kosovar Albanian Muslims — for slaughter. But this time, the Clinton administration chose to act, leading a NATO bombing campaign that began in March 1999. By June, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (who led the Serbian side) had been battered into accepting an international peace agreement. Kosovo would become an independent state; in 2000, the authoritarian Milosevic was toppled in a popular uprising and stood trial for war crimes in the Hague in 2002.

Moyn, the Yale professor, worked on Kosovo policy during the war in a junior White House position. He believed they were doing the right thing — but would come to change his mind in a few short years.

“The thing we really missed is that, when you argue for illegal interventions for humanity’s sake, you’re allowing pretexts for future actors,” he says. “We didn’t reckon with the enormous risk at the time — and it was incurred soon after.”

9/11, Iraq, and the decline of the liberal hawks

In 2001, the world pulled the rug out from under liberals interventionists’ feet. The 9/11 attacks, and the George W. Bush administration’s aggressive response, turned American attention away from genocide and toward terrorism — a move that would lead liberal interventionists in a disastrous direction.

Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not textbook liberal interventions. Both were primarily justified on traditional security grounds, first and foremost combating the threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. They were masterminded and implemented not by liberals but by neoconservatives and right-wing hawks.

Yet to build support for the war, the administration invoked liberal concerns, like the Taliban’s abuse of women and Saddam’s gassing of Iraq’s Kurds in the city of Halabja. And it worked. Leading liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party, academia, the media, and Washington think tanks bought in — casting war on terror hawkery not as a break with the interventionism of the 1990s but as its logical extension.