President Obama walks with (from the left) Tom Donilon, Susan Rice and Samantha… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
With his decision to elevate Susan Rice to become his national security advisor and the nomination of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, President Obama is not simply rewarding the loyalty of two women who have backed him from the start. Nor is he merely increasing the diversity of his foreign policy team. Rather, their promotions hints at a new source of fireworks in a growing foreign policy battle in the Obama administration. Liberal hawks and doves in the White House and the Democratic Party are struggling for hearts and minds over whether it makes sense to intervene in Syria and to attack Iran.
Democratic hawks believe that America has a crusading mission to champion humanitarian intervention. Their credo is exemplified by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's reference to America as the "indispensable nation," one that should intervene abroad whenever and wherever necessary to defend the oppressed. Count among the hawks New York Times commentator Bill Keller, who has been demanding intervention in Syria; Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department; and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a staunch liberal who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee and is urging limited military strikes on Syria.
On the other side are the realist skeptics of intervention in Syria, such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. And although Secretary of State John F. Kerry wants to bolster the Syrian rebels, he's not big on regime change; he favors increased aid as a measure to strengthen diplomatic efforts to force President Bashar Assad to negotiate.
Both men have been deeply shaped by the Vietnam War, in which they served with distinction, and the Iraq war. The fear of a repetition of Iraq is what is prompting liberal pundits such as David Rieff to plead, "Save us from the liberal hawks." The liberal realists worry that the very military steps taken to help embattled populations abroad may inadvertently end up triggering even greater havoc. Like John Quincy Adams, they believe "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy" for fear that America itself will become the monster.
The conflict between the two camps is probably best understood as the latest installment in a running dispute over the lessons of the Vietnam War. Vietnam was originally promoted by Cold War liberals such as Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk. A younger generation, led by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), said that the U.S. had lost its way in Southeast Asia and was becoming an international bad guy. The warriors recoiled. Some became neoconservatives and left for the GOP; others remained behind to try to stage an insurgency inside the party.
Ever since, the Democratic Party has been divided when it comes to foreign policy. During the 1970s and '80s, the doves mostly had the upper hand, decrying U.S. militarism everywhere, from the invasion of Grenada to the Nicaraguan revolution. It may have been emotionally satisfying, but the Democrats also looked weak on foreign policy, a vulnerability that Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush exploited.
Then came the Clinton administration. Initially, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, both of whom were scarred by Vietnam, kept America out of the conflict. But as atrocities mounted in the Balkans, the calls for intervention, including from Samantha Power, who made her name as a journalist covering Serbian aggression, and from Albright, then ambassador to the U.N., became increasingly prominent. In 1995, the administration intervened militarily in the Balkans to bring the Serbs to heel. Hand-wringing about American power was out. A new taste for intervening abroad under the banner of humanitarianism was in. The liberal hawks were once again ascendant.
Despite the fiasco in Iraq, key Obama advisors such as Rice and Power were undaunted when it came to Libya. They argued that regime change was essential, that the United States could put together a genuine international coalition, and that it had a profound obligation to save the civilian population of Benghazi from being annihilated by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's marauding forces. It was supposed to be the Balkans all over again. Instead, Islamic militant forces have been emboldened and are spreading the fight to Syria with Kadafi's weaponry.
The chaos in Libya has chastened Obama, who is resisting attacking Syria militarily. But Libya's travails aren't stopping a chorus of warrior intellectuals from denouncing what they consider his morally culpable passivity. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for example, complains, "Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all."
Will Obama remain aloof in Syria, or will a liberal president once again accede to the cries of the hawks? His elevation of Rice and Power suggests that the pressure will be on from within his own administration. Both Rice and Power are personally much closer to the president than Kerry and could seek to undermine him. Even as Rice controls foreign policy from the White House, Power will occupy a potent pulpit at the United Nations, historically a highly visible platform for moralistic defenses of America and denunciations of evildoers abroad.
In naming Rice and Power, Obama, you could say, is staging his own potent intervention on behalf of the liberal hawks.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of "They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons."