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Liberal hawks ascend at White House

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
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With President Obama's decision to elevate Susan Rice to become his national security adviser and the nomination of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a new source of fireworks has been introduced in a growing foreign policy battle in the Obama administration. Liberal hawks and doves in the White House and the Democratic Party are struggling over whether to intervene in Syria and to attack Iran.

Democrat hawks believe that America has a crusading mission to champion humanitarian intervention. Count among them 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 al-Assad to negotiate.

Both men have been deeply shaped by the Vietnam War, in which they served with distinction, and the Iraq war. Liberal realists worry that the very military steps taken to help embattled populations abroad may inadvertently end up triggering even greater havoc.

Ever since the Vietnam War, 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 Adviser Anthony Lake, both of whom were scarred by Vietnam, kept America out of the conflict in the Balkans. But as atrocities mounted, the calls for intervention, including from Samantha Power, who made her name as a journalist covering Serbian aggression, and from Madeleine 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.

Despite the fiasco in Iraq, key Obama advisers 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 Gadhafi'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 Gadhafi's weaponry.

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 the pressure will be on from within his own administration.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.”

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