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Letter from the Editor: Summer 2008

Liberals seem confused. The hand-wringing about Burma, the faux moral posturing about Darfur (coupled with the insistence that we leave Iraqis to their fates), George Clooney’s pleas on behalf of the subjugated—the stirring together of all of these things has unearthed a contradiction at the heart of liberalism. That contradiction pits the ideal that people ought not to be slaughtered in ditches against the ideal that discourages us from impinging on the sovereignty of those slaughtering people in ditches.

Put more concretely, it sets in opposition the “responsibility to protect” invoked by Bernard Kouchner and others (including Christopher Hitchens in this issue), on the one hand, and the disinclination to intervene, articulated so well in this issue by Todd Gitlin, on the other. To make its case, each side incorporates various lessons, positive and negative, accumulated over the years—Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda for the interventionists, Iraq and Vietnam for their opposites.

There is, some would argue, a third way, and Peter Beinart nicely charts it in his article. Beinart revives the concept of collective security, a paradigm respectful of the tenets of enlightened liberalism, which, true to the Wilsonian ideal that midwifed it, permits aggressive military measures in concert with the “international community.”

The quotation marks point to the problem: no such community exists. We know this from before, from those few months in 1993 when every excitable Clintonite with a copy of the UN Charter thought he was Dag Hammarskjöld. In one fell swoop, the fiasco of Somalia demolished the appeal of “assertive multilateralism.” Yet what followed—the paralytic realities of the United Nations finding their purest expression in Bosnia and Rwanda, where UN peacekeepers stood by, literally, in the face of mass murder, even as the organization quietly tolerated the flouting of its own resolutions—seems to have been forgotten.

So, yes, by all means, restore America’s legitimacy. Remove the taint of Iraq. Offer assurances that any military action mounted by the United States will pay due respect to the opinions of everyone. But make no mistake: the wider scope of action implied by this modest definition of American purpose is illusory. If you will the ends—peace in Darfur, subsistence in Burma, compliance in Iran—you have to will the means. Which narrows our choice down to one of means: American or none at all.

— Lawrence F. Kaplan

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