Grounds for U.S. military interventionThe change sweeping the Arab world has brought to the forefront a controversy dating to the early days of our Republic. Should American military might be used for idealistic reasons or as an expression of a vital national interest? Or both? Having served four U.S. presidents during a variety of international crises, we view the choice between “idealism” and “realism” as a false one. Just as ideals must be applied in concrete circumstances, realism requires context for our nation’s values to be meaningful. To separate them risks building policy on sand.
Like most Americans, we believe that the United States should always support democracy and human rights politically, economically and diplomatically, just as we championed freedom for the captive peoples of the Soviet empire during the Cold War. Our values impel us to alleviate human suffering. But as a general principle, our country should do so militarily only when a national interest is also at stake. Such an approach could properly be labeled “pragmatic idealism.”
Libya is arguably an exception to the rule. While the United States did not have a vital interest at stake in Libya, a limited military intervention solely on humanitarian grounds could be justified.