Kinsley’s Intervention Taxonomy

At Ten Miles Square, Michael Kinsley offers a new “taxonomy” of American attitudes on overseas military intervention as a way to look at the growing debate over a potential U.S. action in Syria. It’s worth an extended quote:

Liberal doves oppose almost any use of U.S. power because their mindset hardened during Vietnam. War kills children and other living things. We can’t be the world’s policeman, and so on. This sounds dismissive, but it’s not meant to be. In fact, it’s more or less where I come out.

Then there are liberal “bleeding hawks,” who see a humanitarian catastrophe developing in Syria — or virtually any place else in the world where there is strife of any kind — and think that the world’s only superpower (for the moment) must not stand idly by. This is what we did for too long in the Balkans, while thousands died.

Conservative doves have roots that go back further than Vietnam, to the pre-World War II isolationism — and sometimes overt fascist sympathies — of groups like America First and people like Father Coughlin. This group is nourished by pathological hatred of Democratic presidents from FDR through Obama, and its members tend to reflexively oppose anything these presidents propose or do on any topic, foreign or domestic.

Conservative hawks, by contrast, reflexively favor almost any use of American power because, well, it’s American and powerful. That sounds dismissive, and it’s meant to.

Kinsley goes on to mention some subcurrents: the elite “realist” school, mostly located in the dying moderate wing of the GOP, which mainly makes excuses for avoiding inconvenient moral considerations, and the “new constitutionalists,” on the left and right, who insist with ever-increasing justification on limitations on presidential power in “wars of choice.”

But the taxonomy offers little direct guidance of how the politics of a potential intervention in Syria may play out thanks to constant variables involving timing and perceptions of the Syrian opposition, and for that matter, of the U.S. commander-in-chief–not to mention the “exit strategy” that is often developed when interventions are well under way.

I’d say Kinsley’s analysis is most insightful in noting the crucial differences that flow from the partisan identity of the leaders (and especially the Maximum Leader) who decide for or against an intervention, or, if it occurs, determine its duration and scope. That may seem kind of obvious, but taxonomies often just don’t take that into account to those who expect consistency or honesty in how we talk about the spilling of American blood and treasure.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.