Political Animal


May 31, 2012 5:44 PM Kinsley’s Intervention Taxonomy

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • RepublicanPointOfView on May 31, 2012 5:57 PM:

    Everyone who is a real patriot knows that we cannot allow any Middle East country to have the knowledge and potential capability of developing nuclear weapons. Everyone who is a real patriot knows that we must attack Iran because we think that they might eventually decide to build nuclear weapons and they already have scientists with the knowledge.

    Everyone who is a real patriot understands that it is much more important for the United States to be feared than respected. Everyone who is a real patriot understands that we need more and more and more militarization spending because our 'Defense Contractors' are the real job creators in our country.

    Everyone who is a real patriot knows that the brilliant neocon minds of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld and their brothren are correct that this is a New American Century where we need to dominate the planet thru military might.

    Everyone who is a real patriot has more than one Chinese made Support Our Troops bumper stickers on each of their SUVs.

  • hornblower on May 31, 2012 6:27 PM:

    I saw Megyn Kelly and that fellow from the WSJ Stephens advocating immediate intervention in Syria. I was ready to follow them anywhere.

  • Bob on May 31, 2012 7:17 PM:

    I don't have a beef with anything substantive you said - just a stylistic gripe.

    Can we all agree to stop using the word "treasure" as in "blood and treasure?" I've always cringed at the term because it sounds like we're a bunch of 18th century pirates.

    It's blood and money - and if that sounds crass well maybe that's not such a bad thing.

  • LaFollette Progressive on June 01, 2012 9:48 AM:

    The most distressing thing about Kinsley's taxonomy is that it really only applies to the small number of people who are deeply plugged in to American politics and engaged with the issues.

    An awful lot of people, particularly those on the Right, are just simply easily led. A President whom they support tells them we're going to war, and they support the war. A President they hate tells them we're going to war, and their trusted radio/TV/blog/chain email tells them it's a bad idea, they oppose the war.

    People who reflexively support US power and accuse war protesters of treason (when a Republican is in the White House) opposed Obama on Libya. Sometimes on the grounds that he didn't do enough. Sometimes on the grounds that we shouldn't be involved at all. Often the same person held both views at varying points. The only consistent thread was knee-jerk opposition to everything the Obama Administration does.

    What we are witnessing is the death of civil society in the United States. It's just unprincipled sectarian shouting to the far horizon.

  • Karl in Minnesota on June 01, 2012 10:49 AM:

    I agree with the first two sentences that essentially war is bad for children and other living things. It is the third sentence where Kinsley's taxomony falls apart. In fact, whether we like it or not, America is the world's policeman. The reality of this should drive the how we approach our relationships around the world. But our unwillingness to accept the fact continually interferes with carrying out the task.

    Policing is different than fighting a war. While both may involve the use of armed force, in policing the threat of armed force is used for the purpose of maintaining and protecting a civil society. In this context, I mean a civil society for all parts of the world and not just a safe, civil society within the United States. It also involves an ongoing negotiation for the consent of those who are being policed.

  • josephus on June 01, 2012 11:40 AM:

    I don't buy that the US must be the world's policeman. why not just let the other countries kill themselves if that's what they want? Now, if some country were to attack us, of course we should retaliate and protect ourselves. but there are so many countries and all they seem to want to do is kill each other off why not just let them? Anyway, when the dust settles, every country is worse off or just the same as when they started. Cuba, for example.

  • Lance on June 01, 2012 12:07 PM:

    Simple question to shut their pie holes:

    Who will pay the extra taxes for a war on Syria?