THE KOSOVO QUANDARY….Liberal internationalist types tend to believe that non-defensive military action shouldn’t be undertaken unless it’s authorized by the UN. But Kosovo wasn’t authorized by the UN, and most liberal internationalists seem to think it was a worthy effort anyway. Matt Yglesias, blogging about his new book over at TPMCafe, ponders this:

It’s a tough question for the liberal internationalist because generally speaking I would like to have my cake and eat it too here. Kosovo mostly accomplished good things, but the process — moving in without Security Council authorization — isn’t something I can strictly speaking approve of. And yet, I think some important things were accomplished there. How can the contradiction be resolved?

[A bit of hemming and hawing….]

But at long last if the Gods of logic say to me that I can’t both defend Kosovo in retrospect and attack adventurism in the future, I say to heck with it. I think one major problem with the Democratic side during the pre-war debate over Iraq is that so many leading politicians, practitioners, and pundits coming out of the 1990s were personally invested in Kosovo in a way that made it difficult for them to concede that, yes, there was something a bit dodgy about what went down there.

I think Matt concedes too much here. The primary criticism of the Kosovo operation is that, having failed to get UN approval, we went “forum shopping” and ended up getting NATO approval instead. But if we can do that for Kosovo, what’s to stop any future invasion that we feel like undertaking? Like, say, Iraq.

But there’s an important distinction here and an important question: just how much constraint on our freedom of action do you support? Requiring UN approval obviously places a considerable constraint on our ability to take offensive action. Requiring the approval of an existing security organization — maybe the UN, maybe not — is a little more relaxed, but still constrains our actions considerably since there are only a limited number of such organizations around. Requiring nothing but a “coalition of the willing” doesn’t constrain us at all.

So how much constraint do you think we should place on ourselves? If your answer is “a lot,” you’ll opt for UN approval or nothing. If your answer is “none,” you’ll opt for ad hoc coalitions.

But if you’re somewhere in between — neither a believer in sanctifying the UN as the sole arbiter of international action nor a believer that unfettered unilateralism is good for America — then you’ll look for some middle course. And relying on the unanimous consent of an existing, internationally recognized security body might be that middle course. It’s still a pretty fair constraint on unilateralism, but it doesn’t go to the opposite extreme of allowing, say, China or Russia to unilaterally obstruct military action even if 90% of the world (or the relevant region) thinks it’s a good idea.

Taken on those terms, Kosovo was an acceptable offensive action but Iraq wasn’t. And those aren’t bad terms. I’d like to see the United States take a far more proactive role in building up the authority and effectiveness of the UN, but for a lot of obvious reasons I’ve never been comfortable outsourcing our military policy entirely to the Security Council. Kosovo is a pretty good example of why. So sign me up for a version of liberal internationalism that’s a smidge more relaxed than that.