May 15, 2011

SAMMY-COME-LATELYS:

Samantha and Her Subjects (Jacob Heilbrunn, 4/19/11, National Interest)

These incursions embrace the idea—some more, some less—of humanitarian intervention. The conceit is that when America intervenes, it is not doing so on the basis of sordid national interests but, rather, on the grounds of self-evidently virtuous human rights or, in its most extreme case, to prevent genocide. This development—to call it a mere trend would be to trivialize its true import—has been a long time in the making.

Indeed, in an essay published in The National Interest (now reprinted in The Neoconservative Persuasion), Irving Kristol contended that human rights had become a kind of unquestioned ideology. Kristol traced its origins back to the debates between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli over intervention in the Balkans, when the Turks massacred some twelve thousand Bulgarians. The realist Disraeli, who sought to check Russia, was unmoved by Gladstone’s humanitarian appeals to endorse self-determination for the Balkan states. But perhaps an even earlier instance came in the lead-up to British involvement in the Crimean War, revolving as it did around the “Eastern Question”; the Turks and Russians could fight it out for influence in the Mediterranean—and the French could get in their squabble over Catholics, without much bother to the Brits. As liberal politician John Bright argued on March 31, 1854, in his great speech to Parliament against squandering power in foolish adventures abroad:

How are the interests of England involved in this question? . . . it is not on a question of sympathy that I dare involve this country, or any country, in a war which must cost an incalculable amount of treasure and of blood. It is not my duty to make this country the knight-errant of the human race, and to take upon herself the protection of the thousand millions of human beings who have been permitted by the Creator of all things to people this planet.

Transforming the United States into a knight-errant, though, is at the heart of liberal internationalism. As in nineteenth-century Britain, so in modern America; just as with Gladstone, the current manifestation of this impulse first became apparent in the Balkans, when NATO established a no-fly zone there, during the bombings of 1995.


As the description concedes, the conceit that America stands on the side of "self-evidently virtuous human rights" is a good bit older than Mr. Heilbrunn seems to want to recognize. The modern Human Rights branch of the Democratic Party is just those folks who have become re-reconciled to America after the anti-American Cold War spasms of the Left.


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Posted by at May 15, 2011 10:44 AM
  

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