» good politics

Wednesday, 23 April A.D. 2014 @ 1:17 PM

But [John McCone] was absolutely right about [South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem]'s overthrow. The most liberal members of Kennedy's team were the most single-minded advocates of the coup. They considered Diem a retrograde figure who was blocking the emergence of modern politics in South Vietnam and making it harder for the United States to prevail there. Even though the coup ended in bloodshed and murder, John Kenneth Galbraith (who had wanted to get rid of Diem for years) wrote Averell Harriman to praise the affair as “another great feather in your cap.”

Thirty years later it was liberals who pressed Bill Clinton hardest to stop the genocidal Balkan wars of the 1990s. With the cold War over, the “beast” of right-wing anti-Communism had largely fallen silent as a factor in foreign policy debate. The most vocal supports of what came to be called “humanitarian intervention” were instead human rights advocacy groups, international relief organizations, even the media. Madeleine Albright, ambassador to the U.N. at the time, spoke for them when she challenged Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Join chiefs of Staff, “What's the point,” Albright asked Powell across the table at the White House, “of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?”

Liberals, in short, have not always been on the defensive when it come to the use of American power. Nor have conservatives always treated foreign policy downsizing as weak and unpatriotic. Playing the public's interest in “peace” has been a prominent part of every single Republican administration's political strategy since the 1970s. Richard Nixon led the way in such maneuvering. His opening to China, he exulted, would be “good to hit the Democrats with at primary time.” Running for reelection two decades later, George H.W. Bush seemed almost embarrassed by his foreign policy accomplishments. The congressional republicans who opposed Barack Obama over Syria in September 2013 were not the first to think doing less might be good politics.

Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama by Stephen Sestanovich