by Zack Beauchamp

Robert E. Kelley argues that there's an essential conflict between ending American military overreach and preventing mass atrocities:

It is awfully tempting to think that just a little bit more exertion, a little more defense spending, a little more covert assistance could help push through desperately needed change in places like Syria or Zimbabwe…

But that’s exactly the ‘utopian’ attitude toward force that realists from Morgenthau to Walt would disparage, right? One small step leads to another to another, and pretty soon you’ve got US empire to handmaiden democracy everywhere all the time, with all the militarization, killing and other unintended consequences such a project must inevitably entail. 

But there's no reason that the US needs to maintain its current level of defense spending to either 1) conduct limited interventions like the one in Libya or 2) assist pro-democracy movements through diplomatic or covert mechanisms. In fact, there are serious arguments that overspending on defense actually weakens both the US military and American ability to influence events abroad more broadly. Nor does a commitment to humanitarian intervention in some cases require intervention in all of them.

The "unintended consequences" Kelley principally worries about are "torture, indefinite detention, Guantanamo, drones, Islamophobia, [and] national security state overkill," among others. But those don't follow from an American commitment to promoting rights abroad – they're consequences of an obsessive focus on the threat to the American homeland from terrorist groups. A foreign policy more oriented around the defense of rights abroad, if anything, would be more sensitive to overreaches following from the war on terror as they damage America's standing when talking about promoting democracy.