Daydream Believers

Slate is excerpting a new book by its military affairs correspondent Fred Kaplan. It is entitled Daydream Believers. Among other items, he argued yesterdaythat the foreign policy debate these days isn't "Realistsversus Neoconservatives, butrealists versusfantasists."It's a cute line, but I'm even more interested in Kaplan's post today.It helps those of us--like myself--who think humanitarian intervention can be justified in some cases make the important distinctions among possible "wars of choice."

It may be hard to devise an ideological argument for embracing one type of intervention and protesting the other. But it is not so hard to make distinctions on practical grounds. It's reasonable to base a foreign policy chiefly on traditional concepts of national interestand still sometimes go out of the way, maybe go to war, in order to help a ravaged people or oust a monstrous tyrant, even when those interests are not directly at stake.

One tangible litmus test for getting involved in such "wars of choice" is whether other powers or international bodies endorse and join the fight. This is not to make a moral pitch for multilateralism, but it is to make a pragmatic case. The purpose behind wars of choice is to enforce international norms. One central fact of our time is that the U.S. government can no longer claim that it embodies these normsthat it holds the right to be judge, jury, and executioner on matters of when, where, and how to enforce them. The U.S. government's recent actionsthe willful disregard of international treaties, the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the illegal "renderings," in the eyes of some the occupation of Iraqhave undermined America's authority as a moral or legal arbiter.

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