Humanitarian Warriors: The Moral Folly of the Clinton Doctrine

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Humanitarian Warriors: The Moral Folly of the Clinton Doctrine

July 11, 2000 37 min read
Kim Holmes
Former Executive Vice President
Kim R. Holmes was the Executive Vice President at The Heritage Foundation.

On June 6, we celebrated another anniversary of D-Day. No matter how often I hear the stories about this great endeavor, I never tire of them. I always want to hear more, to understand how the men who stormed the beach that day found the courage and strength to see them through their ordeal.

The stories are indeed legion--and legendary.

Private Harry Parley tells one such story: "As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell."1 When Parley jumped off the boat, he immediately sank. He said, "I was unable to come up. I knew I was drowning and made a futile attempt to unbuckle the flame-thrower harness." Historian Stephen Ambrose describes how a buddy grabbed Parley's flame-thrower and pulled him forward to where he could stand. Parley says, "Then slowly, half-drowned, coughing water, and dragging my feet, I began to walk toward the chaos ahead."2

I ask myself: What did it take to walk into that chaos?

And there is the story of Captain Lawrence Madill of E Company. Ambrose describes the scene on Omaha Beach: "Madill [whose arm had been practically blown off] made it to the seawall, where he discovered that one of his company mortars had also made it but had no ammunition.3 He ran back to the beach to pick up some rounds. As he was returning, he was hit by machine-gun fire. Before he died, Madill gasped, `Senior noncom, take the men off the beach.'"

Again, I ask: Where does such courage come from?

There are many reasons why men are brave in battle. But for the Americans on Omaha Beach 56 years ago, the strong belief in the rightness of their cause was decisive. It was decisive as a factor of morale, in the victory of the battle, and ultimately in the U.S. victory in the war.

Private Robert Healey of the 149th Combat Engineers describes walking along the beach after the battle:

Lying on the beach was a young soldier, his arms outstretched. Near one of his hands, as if he had been reading, was a pocketbook (what today would be called a paperback). It was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This expressed the spirit of our ordeal. Our hearts were young and gay because we thought we were immortal, we believed we were doing a great thing, and we really believed in the crusade which we hoped would liberate the world from the heel of Nazism.4

To liberate the world from the heel of Nazism. That was America's moral purpose, the virtue upon which we found the courage to enter the chaos. It was our crusade.

Similarly, during the Cold War we sought to save the world from communism. This was our crusade as well.

But what is our crusade today? What is our moral purpose? Why must we be militarily strong? Indeed, what virtue is there in remaining a global power at all?

To protect our own security, of course, is the easy answer to this question. And it is not a wrong answer. Surely, we have the right to protect ourselves. And our involvement in world affairs is necessary to protect our own security.

But this does not entirely answer the question. When should we intervene militarily if our security is not directly threatened? This was, after all, the question posed by the conflict in Kosovo. It was raised in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti as well. And it is raised today in Sierra Leone, Indonesia, and other places in the world where humans are butchering each other. It was so much easier to answer such questions when enemies--like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin--not only threatened others with their evil ideologies and their ruthless abuse of power, but threatened us as well.


Bill Clinton and other liberals believe they have the answer to the question of what our moral purpose should be. They believe that America should wield its mighty power for what they call "humanitarian" purposes.

Some call this idea the Clinton Doctrine.

Describing the U.S. operation in Kosovo, President Bill Clinton said: "But never forget, if we can do this here, and if we can then say to the people of the world, whether you live in Africa, or Central Europe, or any other place, if somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion, and it's within our power to stop it, we will stop it."5

America's moral purpose, therefore, is not merely to make the world safe for democracy, but also to stop mass murder, racism, and ethnic conflicts and to remedy other social ills. What is more, Clinton tells us that if we do not do these things, we should be held culpable for their suffering. He tells us that America would be less of a nation if we did not use our power for compassionate purposes.

Now, where have we heard this idea before: using state power for compassionate purposes?

This is, of course, the old creed of liberalism. But instead of applying it merely to Americans, Clinton and other liberals want America to apply it to the rest of the world. We are no longer merely trying to spread democracy around the world. We are now trying to save the peoples of the world from themselves.

Liberals used to decry the use of American power because it was often deployed against leftist causes. Today, liberals celebrate American power if it is used to promote leftist (as it was in Haiti) or liberal (as it was in Somalia and Kosovo) causes. Either way, it is the vaguely altruistic purposes of the external cause, not the internal benefit to the U.S. national interest, that is morally decisive for liberals. This is not new. In fact, American liberals have always been uneasy with any foreign policy that redounds solely to the benefit of the American nation.

The Clinton Doctrine has many flaws. It tends to overextend our military forces. The missions are open-ended and poorly defined, thus miring us in interminable conflicts.

But I would like to explore today the moral flaws--the moral follies, if you will--of the Clinton Doctrine.

Unintended Consequences
The first moral flaw is that the Clinton Doctrine violates the law of unintended consequences. This is a common moral weakness of liberalism. You can find it in any number of domestic policies, from the harmful effects of liberal education policies in our schools to the dependency culture created by welfare policies.

The same applies to President Clinton's military interventions.

What could be nobler than promising to sacrifice oneself for the sake of protecting innocent people from slaughter?

But the moral flaw is not in the intention; it is in what happens when one attempts to act on that intention. Aristotle says that we must measure the moral worth of an act not by its intention, but by its consequences.

In this sense, we should measure the moral worth of the intervention in Kosovo not merely by whether it saved lives--in fact, it may have cost even more lives--but by what it leads to in the future. If, because our mission is unclear, we are drawn into actions and causes of which we should disapprove--Albanian ethnic cleansing of Serb areas comes to mind--then we will find indeed that our good intentions are worthless.

Clinton says that we should intervene "when it's in our power to stop" the killing. Well, it was within our power to stop the mass murders in Rwanda, but we didn't. It was within our power to stop the murders in Sierra Leone, but we didn't do it. And if we were willing to risk a confrontation with Russia, it is even in our power to stop the mass murders in Chechnya.

But we do not. Why? Because in each case we calculated that the price was too high or we had other priorities that were more important. There is nothing wrong with these decisions.

But it is hypocritical to proclaim the principle of humanitarian intervention for Europe and not for Russia, Asia, or Africa. It may even be racist.

It will not do to argue that we should intervene merely because we can. Clearly, capability is not the decisive factor. Otherwise, we would have been intervening in Rwanda and other places.

Nor will it do to argue that those who opposed interventions in the Balkans are against interventions everywhere--that they are, in a word, isolationists. This is what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tried to suggest when she argued that "just because you can't act everywhere doesn't mean you don't act anywhere."6 No credible opponent of the Kosovo intervention ever made the claim that they opposed interventions everywhere. Albright is not answering the critique, but merely dismissing a straw man.

The Tyranny of Sentimentality
The second moral flaw is that war is not the appropriate moral means to express compassion.

Wars can be just. They can even be glorious. But they are never humane. We may justify doing all kinds of horrible things for self-defense or to liberate a friend from tyranny. But we cannot and should not pretend that war is a means to create utopia. That is the tragic mistake made by many totalitarians in the 20th century.

The mistake here is confusing sentiment with principle. Sentiment is an emotionalized attitude, like patriotism. Patriotism by itself is neither right nor wrong. It depends on the country and the patriotic cause. American patriotism is good, in my estimation. Serbian patriotism is not.

Principle is, by contrast, a rule of right conduct based on reason. American patriotism is good because it stands for such right principles as liberty, justice, and virtue. These principles are grounded in reason and are best applied with wisdom and prudence. Serbian patriotism is bad because it stands for bigotry and ethnic hatred. The patriotic sentiments of Serbian nationalists are grounded in emotion and hatred and often applied with utter brutality.

This distinction is instructive. It shows that what matters morally are not sentiments and emotions, but principles and reasons. The morally decisive element in deciding whether to engage in any war--humanitarian or otherwise--should not be sentimentality, but reason. The appeal to "do something" when faced with foreign butchery evokes the sentiment of compassion. But as an emotion, compassion per se can have no moral content whatsoever unless we know what is to be done with it. I may have compassion for a terminally ill relative, but if I were to shoot that relative to relieve his misery, I would not be judged by most people to have acted ethically.

The same is true for military interventions. I may have compassion for innocent civilians being butchered by some dictator, but it would be morally questionable for me to retaliate by butchering other civilians who happen to enjoy the favor of that dictator.

The point is that compassion, like all sentiments, is morally unreliable as a source of right conduct. Like patriotism, the sentiment of compassion can be used or misused. To be ethically sound, it must be grounded in a larger cause that reflects more basic principles of liberty and justice--principles that cannot be separated from virtue.

As a nation, we have many means to express our compassion. We have the charity of our people. We even have humanitarian aid sponsored by the government. But we should not employ military force for this purpose, reserving it instead for self-defense, the defense of our vital national interests, and the liberation of deserving oppressed peoples.

Ultimately, mismatching means and ends causes the flaw of unintended consequences. Foreign countries are beyond our sovereignty and out of reach of our laws. If we wish to make them behave, we first have to bring them to heel.

But people are not dogs. If we wish to bring them to heel, we must apply the rules of war, not the laws of justice.

War is the means of last resort. It is a means of self-defense and liberation. It is not the appropriate means to perfect human nature or to send signals about our moral sensibilities.

Indeed, in international affairs, universal justice is not possible. The means to achieve it would always destroy the very end they were supposed to serve. While I can imagine a liberal democratic global order based on voluntary association, I cannot imagine one coerced or forced on all peoples. Besides, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed, democracy does not guarantee liberty, not to mention justice or virtue. The point is that our obligation to establish justice in the world is limited. It is limited not only because it is not in our power to establish universal justice for the entire world, but also because it would be moral folly for us to try.

Moral Confusion
The Clinton Doctrine suffers from a third flaw: moral confusion. It confuses the moral responsibilities of governments and individuals. It assumes they are the same.

They are not.

Friedrich Hayek wrote: "Justice, like liberty and coercion, is a concept which, for the sake of clarity, ought to be confined to the deliberate treatment of men by other men."7

The responsibilities of a democratic or republican government are different from those that govern our private lives. The state's responsibility is to secure liberty so that I, as an individual, have the freedom to act in a virtuous manner. If it tries to compel me to act in a virtuous way, other than to respect the laws and rights of others, then it will at some point violate my conscience.

A person is a moral being--he or she has free will, a conscience, and even a soul. States are not moral beings. They lack these personal, spiritual, and moral attributes. They may be agents speaking and acting on behalf of people, but they should never be considered as possessing moral sovereignty unto themselves. Conscience ultimately must always be understood as an individual and private matter. Otherwise, we may become powerless in the face of a state that claims, in the fashion of Jean Jacques Rousseau's General Will, the right to determine what is absolute morality.

It is very dangerous indeed to blur the moral responsibilities and interests of the state and the people. The story of totalitarianism in the 20th century is rife with states and political causes that failed to make this distinction.

Indeed, we should always remember that, in America, the state does not have "interests." The American people do.

To preserve our liberty and our virtue, we must remain vigilant against the pretense that the state is our conscience. Otherwise, we lose individual responsibility for our own actions. And we lose the moral grounds on which to challenge the state or any collective action that violates our conscience.

A Prodigal Foreign Policy
The fourth moral flaw of the Clinton Doctrine is what Aristotle called "prodigality." This means being excessively generous or liberal with one's possessions and resources. A prodigal person or nation will inevitably become exhausted and turn to the wrong sources or methods to continue its excess giving. When people do this, they become, in Aristotle's words, "mean."8

As Aristotle says: "[The prodigal person] is not thought to have a bad character; it is not the mark of a wicked or ignoble man to go to excess in giving and not taking, but only a foolish one."9

Promising to stop mass killings around the world, therefore, is not "wicked or ignoble." But it is naïve, and therefore foolish.

Everyone knows, including Clinton, that America cannot possibly stop mass killings everywhere in the world. We would bankrupt ourselves if we tried. What is worse, we would be forced to use methods that would make us--in Aristotle's words--a "mean" nation. We would have to become an international vigilante, conducting the international equivalent of SWAT team raids against sovereign nations to arrest criminals.

Over time, we would have to employ greater draconian means to ferret out the criminals. We would also have to adopt practices that would belie our humanitarian intentions and contradict our "democratic" values--measures such as inflicting civilian casualties in war and tolerating the barbaric behavior of allies--as we have done and are now doing in Kosovo.

All of these measures may be justified in the service of liberty and democracy. But can they be justified in the service of humanitarianism?

I think not. It would be like imprisoning someone in the name of freedom or, as communists do, erecting dictatorships in the name of democracy. It is positively Orwellian.

Again, the moral problem with prodigality is not with the intention, but with the consequences of the intention. Trying to stop genocide everywhere in the world as a matter of principle would inevitably overextend America's resources. At some point, we would be unable to protect adequately not only other people, but even ourselves.

It is telling that supporters of humanitarian wars never contradict this point directly. It is good they do not, for the point is on its face irrefutable. Instead, they sometimes dissemble, arguing that they don't really mean what they say. Or they insist that the United States is not overextended, and thus can afford such operations. They may manufacture fake strategic interests as cover for their humanitarian impulses. Other times, they sink into name-calling and demagoguery, hinting darkly that opponents of humanitarian wars are isolationists or heartless realists, or both.

I will not argue whether America now is or is not overextended militarily. I happen to believe it is, but even if it was not, it inevitably would become so if the humanitarian warriors had their way. How could it be otherwise? If we take them at their word, whereby America has a moral obligation to all of mankind, how can we not take on all threats to the universal moral order? If, on the other hand, we do not take them at their word--i.e., if they are not serious and are merely engaging in a bit of disingenuous demagoguery to mobilize opinion behind a particular military operation--then they are guilty of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

This will not do. Either way, their position is morally indefensible. No American should be demanding that the United States be committed to a limitless universal principle that will condemn it to decline and possibly to defeat. And no American should be playing hypocritical games with America's national mission by demanding something that no one seriously believes will ever be accomplished.


You may or may not agree with the Clinton Doctrine, but the President at least realizes that power must have a moral purpose. Which raises the question: What would the soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach think of Clinton's view of America's moral purpose? Would it give them the same courage to leave the Higgins boats and move "into the chaos" on the beach?

I think not. I believe the soldiers on Omaha Beach saw a virtue in their cause that is missing in Kosovo and other Clintonian interventions.

Virtue is defined as "moral excellence," or "doing what is right." Another definition given is "manly strength, as in valor, and courage." Fortitude (moral courage) is one of the four basic virtues in Greek philosophy. The others are justice, prudence, and temperance.10 Throughout history, to be good meant also to be strong.

Virtue, moreover, is a habit or trait possessed by people, not institutions (like government). People have free will to choose between good and evil. Institutions may reflect the moral choices of people, but they have no free will or moral life apart from the people they represent--they are not, to use a Kantian phrase, "things in themselves." They are not moral entities standing above and separately from the people.

America's Founding Fathers understood virtue in this way. It was indispensable to liberty. They knew that for America to be truly free, it also had to be a society made up of virtuous people. Without virtue, liberty becomes mere license--the desire to do what one wants when one wants. Without virtuous people, government would lack responsibility and thus not be able to sustain the conditions for liberty.11

In short, according to the Founders, I must be good to be truly free. And I must be free to be truly good.

But there is more to virtue than enabling us to enjoy our freedoms. It also gives us the moral strength to sacrifice for our freedoms.

The soldiers on Omaha Beach were willing to make their sacrifice because they knew their cause was right. They knew they were fighting for liberty and virtue. The America of the World War II generation was a society in which virtue still mattered. Schools, churches, and even government officials taught that with freedom must come responsibility. Americans at that time did not think that by liberating Europe they would eliminate all the evils of the world. Nor did they see our involvement as act of compassion. But they did believe that the American way of freedom, justice, and virtue was something not only worth fighting for, but worth giving to other peoples.

A Cause Without Virtue
Contrast this with the cause in Kosovo. U.S. airmen who were told that they were avenging the lives of innocent civilians were forced to strafe Serbian bridges at an altitude of 15,000 feet--which is out of harm's way for the pilots, but which practically ensures that innocent civilians will lose their lives. Remember, "to stop the killing" was the ostensible main and urgent reason for intervening in Kosovo.12

Moreover, the people on whose behalf the intervention was made--the Albanian Kosovars--today are trying their level best to conduct an ethnic cleansing of the Serbs in Kosovo. The day of the average American GI is spent either keeping both sides from slitting each other's throats or performing social work services like settling neighborhood disputes or delivering fresh food and water.

There is scant virtue in this cause. There is no "moral excellence" in killing innocent civilians in the name of humanitarianism. And we cannot really say that our police work in the Balkans is about spreading the blessings of liberty. If it were, our primary aim would be to overthrow Milosevic and his henchmen at all costs.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the GIs in Kosovo believe that their cause is unjust. They may not be very clear on what their cause is--other than to keep people from butchering one another--but their president has told them that they are performing a humanitarian mission, and they are inclined to believe him.

Indeed, it is true that U.S. and NATO forces are now preventing people from butchering each other. Indeed, it is also true that they are enforcing a kind of peace that may not exist without them. The U.S. forces understandably and rightly feel obligated to see through to the end the job they started.

But these GIs also have a nagging feeling that if their cause is not wrong, it somehow is not right either--at least not "right" in the sense of what armies are supposed to do. Reports from Kosovo show that our troops are becoming demoralized because of the confused and aimless purposes of the mission.

Well, something indeed is very wrong. And the soldiers are right to sense it. The mission is not merely poorly conceived as a military enterprise. It also represents a world view that any American soldier would sense as being problematic, if not morally compromising, in a military context.

The world view they sense is one not based on virtue, as it has historically been understood by generations of Americans, but on "values"--or more accurately, on what liberals nowadays define as values. The favorite values of modern liberalism are state-enforced compassion (defined as the sentiment justifying state action on behalf of aggrieved and ideologically favored groups), "multiculturalism," "diversity," and "inclusiveness."13 Each of these ideas has its own special meaning, but behind all of them is a strange paradox: The supreme "value" is that all values are ethically relative, and thus without intrinsic value.

Virtues are, by contrast, all about things that are or should be intrinsically valued. Virtues are about right and wrong; values are about choices. Virtue demands sacrifice; values offer rights. According to "values-think," I have no right to deny someone their values, not because they are wrong, but because I would be violating their right to choose. Such, today, is the definition of freedom.

Generally, virtues are always good and right. Values can be evil and wrong. George Will observed recently: "Hitler had scads of values. George Washington had virtues. Who among those who knew him would have spoke of Washington's `values'?"14

Values per se are not worth dying for. The right values--or better yet, virtues or virtuous causes--are worth dying for.

Clinton's interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo were not about virtue, and thus, plausibly at least, not worth dying for. They were about values--particularly about the liberal values of state-enforced compassion, multiculturalism, diversity, equal rights, and inclusiveness. In addition to serving the mission of compassion, Clinton's team saw the Kosovo intervention in terms of spreading the liberal faith in the power of the state to socially engineer (the current fashionable term is "fix") a solution to the political and social problems of the Balkans.15

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for example, claimed that "ending ethnic strife" and creating "multiethnic societies" in the Balkans were "essential to the goal President Clinton had...of a Europe that is undivided, whole and free."16

This sentiment echoed President Clinton's remarks during the Kosovo conflict, which drew a parallel between Serb butchery of innocent people and what he calls "hate crimes" in America. As the President said, "When someone dies in a horrible incident in America, or when we see slaughter or ethnic cleansings abroad, we should remember that we defeat these things by teaching and by practicing a different way of life, and by reacting vigorously when they occur in our own midst."17

Thus, to the President, extending U.S. military protection to the Albanian Kosovars was on par with expanding the list of federally protected groups to include homosexuals.

The Clinton-Albright Balkan project, then, goes far beyond the cause of spreading democracy and liberty. In fact, it may be said to relate to these causes only indirectly, if at all. Instead, the President and his team want above all to create a multicultural society in the Balkans. Creating a multiethnic society was President Clinton's mantra in the Bosnian settlement, and it is present in Kosovo as well. As Madeleine Albright said in her recent remarks to the ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Italy: "Our goal in Bosnia remains a unified, multiethnic state in which all
citizens can live safely."18 Indeed, as Vice President Al Gore says, the starting point in Kosovo is that "there must be a genuine recognition of and respect for difference...[and] then...a transcendence of difference."19

This is the equal rights agenda with a vengeance. Enforcing the equality of differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation has become the summum bonum of contemporary liberalism. With respect to ethnicity and cultural differences, it now has become not merely NATO policy, but when the going gets tough, a war aim.

But here lies a terrible trap for NATO, the United Nations, and the United States. Democracy and the goal of creating a multiethnic society are in conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO and U.N. authorities know that democratic elections in Kosovo will likely produce extremist results on both sides. In fact, Kosovar Serbs, under orders from Belgrade, are threatening to boycott the municipal elections in October.20 Now Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations administrator in Kosovo, is reportedly saying that it does not matter; the elections will be held with or without the Serbs.21 Currently, Kouchner expects the elections to occur in October.

But the election results cannot be fully legitimate without the Serbs. If the Serbs persist with their boycott, the choice for Kouchner will be either to accept unrepresentative elections or to postpone them. Either way, the democratic process is a sham. In Kosovo, democratic elections under the current conditions will not solve the ethnic/cultural problems. It will merely exacerbate them.

Kouchner and others hope that democracy will be an eventual byproduct of a multiethnic society. But this will never happen, because the principles are backwards: A truly multiethnic society can emerge only from a democratic society, not the other way around. If the people decide to live together peaceably, it will be because they freely choose to do so. If they decide not to live together peaceably, it is undemocratic to force them to do so.

Woodrow Wilson understood this, which is why he accepted partition as a consequence of self-determination. What mattered most was democracy, not multiethnic harmony. By insisting that their goal is multiethnicity, NATO, the United Nations, and the United States have established conditions that make real democracy (and possibly peace as well) in the Balkans nearly impossible to achieve.22

Democracy, liberty, and the rule of law may one day come to the Balkans, but not as a result of NATO peacekeepers and United Nations bureaucrats trying to impose a multicultural project on the people there. Rather, they will come when Slobodan Milosevic and his like-minded henchmen no longer rule Serbia, and when the Balkan people are ready to accept a political formula to live together under democratic rule.

There is indeed a huge difference between "fixing" countries and giving them liberty. Really fixing the Balkans--helping them establish the democratic institutions to guarantee their liberties--would take a great deal more than a few thousand peacekeepers and billions of dollars of aid wasted on poorly managed U.N. programs. It would, at the very least, require the immediate removal of Milosevic from power, the forcible installation of a friendly Serbian government, and the military occupation of Serbia. And it would require draconian occupation-like policies in Kosovo and Bosnia.

After all this had been done, over time people might adjust. But as matters now stand, they will cling to their hatreds and grievances, waiting for the next opportunity to settle centuries-old scores.

I am not recommending a draconian course of action, but at least it would have the courage of conviction. It would, in this sense, be a cause with a clearly definable and virtuous end--the establishment of democracy and liberty in the Balkans--that could justify the massive loss of life that would be required to achieve it in a military campaign.

That was, after all, the nature of the cause of D-Day. That was, if you will, its moral character.

Our national causes should always have character. Like individuals, they should be virtuous. It is their virtue that morally sanctifies the sacrifice required to achieve them. And it is their character, which I define as "virtue in action," that makes them great.

The Clinton Doctrine is a moral failure because it lacks character. It fails not merely because it is naïve and hypocritical, or because it sets up goals it cannot possibly attain. Rather, it fails because it assumes that late 20th century liberalism can be substituted for the causes that made America historically great. It lacks, in short, a proper appreciation of virtue and liberty in the making of the American cause.

The American cause the GIs in Normandy gave their lives to achieve had real character. Their cause was liberty, not multiculturalism. It celebrated virtue, not diversity. It aimed to free the world of tyranny. It did not pretend to end all injustice or create some utopian world.

This is the main difference between then and now. And it is the difference between the great cause of World War II and the meager causes underlying Bill Clinton's wars.


Not all conservatives think that the Clinton Doctrine fails because it has the wrong goals. Some conservatives, in fact, wholly embrace its humanitarian goals.23 Their only criticism is that President Clinton does not go far enough. Believing that he still suffers from an old-left prejudice against American patriotism, these conservatives think that the President and other liberals should shed their shyness about American power and use whatever means are necessary to take up, as Adam Wolfson says, "humanity's a matter of national honor."24 Harking back to Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy, they believe America should carry a "big stick" in the service of the humanitarian cause.

These conservatives are trying to overcome what is the central weakness of liberal humanitarianism: the wild mismatch of means and ends. They fully realize the ambivalence in the heart of liberals who claim they want to convert war to humanitarian purposes. They rightly sense that liberals lack the courage of their convictions. These conservatives want to be tough-minded versions of their liberal brethren, willing to do what is necessary to get the job done.

However right the conservative humanitarians are to doubt the mettle of liberals, they are wrong to think that being tough-minded will make things right. Being tough-minded in service of a flawed cause does not make the cause any less flawed. In fact, it may make it even more so. Conservative humanitarians fail to appreciate that no amount of American power could possibly achieve their stated goal of taking up "humanity's cause" (whatever that may be). In fact, far more than for liberals, the conservative humanitarian's case suffers from the flaws of prodigality--the upward spiral of willing ever-greater resources to support a generous cause, which eventually either collapses out of exhaustion, flies off into wild hypocrisy, or converts into a mean neo-imperialism that contradicts the cause it set out to champion.

If we were to take "big stick" humanitarianism seriously, America would be locked in perpetual warfare, leading to overstretch of its forces. If its supporters believe otherwise--that, in fact, warring for humanity's cause would not be all that taxing--then we may rightly doubt the seriousness of their convictions, as they do those of their liberal brethren. Faced with the contradiction between a utopian vision and the reality of limited power, they may find it necessary, as liberals have done, to dissemble on the actual circumstances under which they would translate their grand vision into reality.

These conservatives are attaching their wagon--not to mention the future of American power--to what is essentially a liberal project.25 But simply wedding American patriotism to humanitarianism will not solve any of the moral contradictions of the Clinton Doctrine.

What makes American patriotism "good" is not the de facto exercise of American power, but the virtuous cause of securing liberty for our children and spreading the blessings of liberty to others. This is a very concrete cause grounded in America's history and tradition. It is, by its very nature, a self-limiting cause--one that is sensitive not only to the limits of U.S. military power, but also to the political nature of the foreign causes America embraces. It is sorely misguided to substitute the modern liberal value of government-enforced humanitarianism--frittering away America's military superiority on faraway causes that are not in the U.S. national interest--for the glorious conservative causes of liberty and justice that were so important to the heroes of D-Day.

What is particularly worrisome is that conservative humanitarians do not appreciate the liberal roots of their philosophy. They have a rather expansive view of the role of the state in enforcing values on people. As a result, they fail to make the proper distinction between the responsibilities of the government and those of the people--which, of course, is the classic mistake of modern liberalism. Do they not realize the similarities in logic between the humanitarian warfare doctrine and the standard liberal creed of using state power for social engineering? Surely, if it is appropriate to use airstrikes to create a multicultural society in the Balkans, it would be morally inconsistent to quibble about the constitutionality of the U.S. government's using draconian means to enforce ethnic and other kinds of equality within the United States.

It makes no difference that conservative humanitarians are talking about foreign policy rather than domestic policy, because the issue is not national defense but using military power to enforce social change. Indeed, the entire purpose of humanitarian wars is to use force to solve foreign social and cultural problems as if they were domestic issues. The state's role can be expanded greatly in the service of national defense, as it rightly was during the Cold War, but it is problematic indeed when its military arm is expanded in the service of causes that are largely social in nature.


So what, then, is our moral responsibility to other peoples? To what moral purpose should we use our strength, beyond defending our own security?

I believe our moral purpose in the world today is not radically different from what it was during World War II. Our goal is to secure the blessings of liberty first for our own people and, so long as it is consistent with that goal, to help others secure the blessings of liberty for themselves.

To the extent that we can, we should help nations adopt democratic institutions that safeguard liberties. We cannot do this everywhere, but we can and should do it in regions like Europe, Eurasia, East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East where we not only have vital interests, but where evil forces could endanger the cause of liberty throughout the entire world.

We cannot guarantee liberty everywhere. We have our own security to worry about, and to the extent that we help others to enjoy the blessings of liberty, we must do so with the clear understanding that helping them must also be a means of helping ourselves.

It will not do to pretend that the American world project is one of simple altruism. This would be not only naïve, but dangerously hypocritical.

Our strategic goal should be to maintain a global balance of power in favor of liberty and democracy. This means that our armed forces must be stronger than they currently are. We must keep our military alliances strong and on occasion expand them. We must make good on our military commitments to friends and allies. We must protect our own people from missile attack. And we must spread economic freedom to create greater global prosperity.

And, yes, we must intervene in places like the Balkans if we deem it in our national interest and if we conduct ourselves in such a way as to promote the cause of liberty.

But to achieve these strategic objectives, we must be clear about our moral purpose in the world. Otherwise, we will always be miscalculating our means and ends--either doing too much for half-hearted causes, as we did in the Balkans and Haiti, or doing too little for serious problems like deterring China and rogue states.

We need an inspiring and coherent vision of America's role in the world--one rooted not in
fashionable slogans, but in our history and our
traditions. Slogans are not visions. Neither are sentiments. Either we take seriously the need to understand our traditions, or we will be condemned not only to lose them, but possibly to perish as a great nation.


Throughout American history, people who had the courage to be free made this country great. Whether it is settling the West or storming the beaches of Normandy, Americans accomplish great things when they are spreading or fighting for liberty. Their faith in the rightness of their cause gives them the courage to make great sacrifices.

Like the Founding Fathers, the World War II generation believed that sacrifice was a republican virtue. They believed it was indispensable to secure the blessings of liberty not only for us, but also for other peoples.

This willingness to sacrifice for liberty and virtue was--and still is--the source of our greatness as a nation.

It is the moral source of our strength.

It is the vision that inspired Captain Madill and other GIs on D-Day to perform such extraordinary acts of heroism.

And it will surely inspire future American heroes who storm other beaches in the defense of liberty.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This paper is an expanded version of a lecture given to members of The Heritage Foundation on June 17, 2000.



1. Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), pp. 335-336.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., pp. 336-337.

4. Ibid., p. 485.

5. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (Skopje, Macedonia), "Remarks by the President to the KFOR Troops," June 22, 1999.

6. Walter Isaacson, with reporting by Douglas Waller, "Madeleine's War," Time, May 17, 1999, p. 26.

7. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 99.

8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, translated by W. D. Ross, available at .

9. Ibid.

10. See Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Gramercy Books, 1996).

11. James Madison said in The Federalist Papers: "Republican government presupposes the existence of [virtue] in a higher degree than any other form." Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers (New York: NAL Penguin, Inc., 1961), p. 346.

12. In his address to the nation to announce that the United States had joined the NATO airstrikes, President Clinton stated, "We act to protect thousands of innocent people in Kosovo...." The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, "Statement by the President to the Nation," March 24, 1999.

13. Liberals also typically espouse the value of human rights, to include not only basic civil and political rights, but social and cultural rights as well. Conservatives tend to limit their definition of human rights to political and economic rights such as life, liberty, property, and self-government.

14. George F. Will, "Forget Values, Let's Talk Virtues," The Washington Post, May 25, 2000. If a virtue is redefined and deprived of its core meaning, then it ceases to be understood properly as a virtue. This is essentially what happens with a liberal definition of compassion. Understood as a private matter, compassion is a virtue. But when it is defined as a social value enforced by government, it becomes a mere value or sentiment devoid of ethical integrity.

15. While it is true that Clinton listed other more traditional war aims in the Balkans, including creating self-government and preventing a wider war, humanitarian principles were distinctive and probably decisive.

16. Speech by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Associated Press Members, "American Diplomacy, Enhancing International Cooperation," New York, May 8, 2000.

17. "Clinton's Hate Rhetoric," The Sunday Oklahoman, April 11, 1999, p. 12.

18. "Madeleine Albright Delivers Remarks to the Ministerial Meeting of the North Atlantic Council," FDCH Political Transcripts, Federal Document Clearing House, May 24, 2000.

19. Adam Wolfson, "How to Think About Humanitarian War," Commentary, July-August 2000, p. 48.

20. Agence France-Presse, "OSCE Begs Serbs to Join Kosovo's Election Party," International News, July 6, 2000.

21. Agence France-Presse, "Chirac Hopes for Favourable Conditions for Kosovo Elections," International News, June 24, 2000.

22. Some may argue that since Balkan groups have lived peaceably together in the past, they can do so in the future. This may be true. Indeed, the Slovenians and the Croats are doing a fairly good job of it already. But they are successful precisely because they have fairly uniform ethnic societies. No one is trying to force a multiethnic society on them. Although it is true that various dictatorships and monarchies have forced multiethnic solutions on the Balkan peoples in the past, this does not mean that democracy will have the same result. In fact, in Bosnia and Kosovo, only outside force can sustain a multiethnic society. It is a tragic mistake to believe that multiethnicity holds the key to democracy and peace in the Balkans.

23. See Wolfson, "How to Think About Humanitarian War."

24. Ibid., p. 48.

25. Conservative humanitarianism can best be understood as a form of liberal nationalism. This distinguishes it from the socialist internationalism of the hard left, which is deeply anti-American, or liberal internationalism, which is merely ambivalent about American power.


Kim Holmes

Former Executive Vice President