WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush has faced surprisingly little serious opposition to his disastrous foreign policy. The left was divided over Iraq and many of those who opposed Bush did so for partisan or even personal reasons. Unfortunately, little has changed.

Most liberals want to do what Bush is doing, only more competently and under the United Nations flag. Thankfully, some on the left disagree.

For instance, Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias write: “The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge — a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place.”

Their analysis applies no less trenchantly to leftists who opposed the war because of their hostility toward Bush. Most would have cheered themselves hoarse had President Bill Clinton attacked Iraq. In fact, little distinguishes liberal and neoconservative promiscuous intervention.

For example, Robert Wright of the New American Foundation suggests “progressive realism”: Washington should promote the nation’s interest but, conveniently, the national interest incorporates traditional liberal concerns, warranting even more intervention than now. Wright contends that “the slaughter in Darfur, though a humanitarian crisis, is also a security issue.”

Michael Signer of the Truman National Security Project offers something called “exemplarism.” It would justify going to war with Sudan as well as Iraq.

More recently, Shadi Hamid suggests, in The American Prospect, reclaiming “the democratic idealism of the neoconservative movement while wedding it to a more multilateral framework.” This is the multilateral rather than the incompetence dodge.

Spencer Ackerman of The New Republic criticizes Hamid: “The idea of democratic failure — the idea that democracy in certain conditions cannot meet social expectations, leading to its collapse — never occurs to him, despite three and half years of the Iraq War.”

More promising is the attempt by Anatol Leiven on the left to join with John Hulsman on the right on behalf of a philosophy that they label “ethical realism.” The starting point for American foreign policy should be recognition that the U.S. government’s primary responsibility is to its people. The lives of Americans are not more important than those of others, but the government represents Americans, is funded and defended by them, and is entrusted with protecting them.

The United States has a range of objectives and a range of tools to advance those interests. The means used should be calibrated with the ends sought.

Where issues are vital, Washington can, and sometimes must, do more, including make war. But such cases are not common and such steps should be reserved for the most serious interests. Obviously, the term vital interest is not self-defining. However, it usually is evident when something is largely irrelevant or critically important.

Although the U.S. should focus on protecting American interests, Washington should be constrained by moral principles. That is, the U.S. should take into account the interests of other people around the globe.

For example, advancing democracy and human rights is an important objective because the U.S. is part of a global human community. However, though a valid goal, it should not be the driving principle behind American foreign policy — that is, Washington should focus on protecting U.S. interests, while looking for opportunities to better the life of others around the world.

Thus, Washington should not stand against democratic movements merely because a new regime might be less friendly to America. At the same time, the U.S. should not recklessly explode existing political systems in an abstract devotion to democracy, especially where the result might be murder and mayhem, jihadist revolution, and/or frenetic anti-Americanism.

Iraq has destroyed the illusion that military action can create a liberal democracy where the underlying civil society and culture have not yet developed. The toughest humanitarian case is genocide, but even there aggressive war is hard to justify.

First, one can rarely intervene easily and almost never can leave easily. Virtually all wars turn out unexpectedly.

Second, supposedly humanitarian intervention often has antihumanitarian results. In Kosovo, the victorious ethnic Albanians drove out a quarter of a million Serbs, Jews, Roma and non-Albanian Muslims.

Third, U.S. servicemen and women have enlisted to defend America, not to patrol the globe. They are morally responsible only to those inside their own political community.

Fourth, an expansive interventionist policy and constant war require a large military, big budgets and restrictions on civil liberties. Moreover, though there are many reasons why the U.S. is hated around the world, the perception that the U.S. already is at war with them is why some people work so hard to kill Americans and American friends.

Liberals must do more than rename neoconservative policies. They must develop a better foreign policy.

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