Much of the discussion of late on this blog has been about when to intervene and under what authority. On that score, I agree with Jordan Tama that legitimacy – as amorphous a concept as that is – makes more sense than legality.
But we must also recognize that the determining factor in many cases is not the efficacy of the UN or the conclusions of international commissions – it is a domestic political decision taken within the United States. President Clinton wanted to intervene in Kosovo and President Bush wanted to intervene in Iraq – so they did, whether those actions were legal or legitimate or not. In other cases – Rwanda and Darfur come to mind – neither President (or Congress), had much stomach to make a case for intervention to the American people. And more often than not, absent U.S. leadership, robust intervention to stop genocide or stem humanitarian disasters does not take place.
The transcript of the first Gore-Bush debate in 2000 crystallizes this problem in an intriguing way. Of course, the now infamous Bush line from the debate is “The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of our troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.” Bush also defines the circumstances for deploying troops very narrowly – certainly not offering a definition encompassing a principle of a responsibility to protect (or spread democracy). Perhaps more enlightening is this News Hour summary of a later Bush-Gore back and forth on intervention.
The point is that the U.S. has no political consensus – no center – on the question of intervention, so the pendulum swings in strange ways. When then-Governor Bush came out against nation building and humanitarian intervention, I’m sure a huge majority of GoP members of Congress firmly lined up behind him – those same members now make soaring speeches about the need to stand up for our values abroad. Flip that around and you’ll probably find a similar switch on the Democratic side.
But the standard by which to judge whether or not to intervene should not just be: what party is the President who is making the decision? The U.S. does itself, the UN, and the world a huge disservice if there is no predictability, no clear political consensus, about what constitutes a legitimate intervention. Both parties do agree on one thing – they want the U.S. to remain the sole superpower. But for that to work, people in both parties need to come together to figure out what that means with regard to intervention.