How did ‘national interest’ become a politically neutral term?

Daniel Larison writes:

Bill Keller confirms that he has not really learned any of the lessons of the Iraq war:

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

If we applied Keller’s Iraq lessons to the Syrian case, it would warn us away from military action or any deeper involvement in the conflict. Wading into a new conflict in Syria or anywhere else would be detrimental to U.S. national interests. The U.S. has nothing at stake in the Syrian conflict. Keller claims that “we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one,” and he is referring to the danger of a failed state serving as a haven for terrorists, but all of the proposed options for intervention involve hastening the failure of the Syrian state and aiding in the empowerment of jihadist groups. If the U.S. has an interest in preventing state failure in Syria, that is a reason to avoid intensifying and prolonging the conflict by backing the opposition.

Keller and Larison seem to agree that with Syria (and presumably in all international affairs) America should be guided by the same principle: the service of U.S. national interest. They disagree on the method for accomplishing that aim.

Rhetorically, ‘national interest’ is treated like an impregnable fortress inside which reside patriotic, honorable Americans of all political stripes unified in their dedication to the protection of the nation — except they don’t happen to agree on what constitutes this incontestable good, the national interest.

If there is in fact no agreement about what serves the national interest, then why do so many so solemnly declare that such-and-such cannot be, or must be, in the national interest?

No doubt when the CEOs of all the major banks were assembled by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, there was a clear consensus around that table that it was neither in the national interest nor their personal interest that any of the banks should fail. Plenty of other Americans begged to differ, but they weren’t the ones who got to define the national interest at that moment.

Still, the example does serve to illustrate that national interest is a form of self interest — supposedly the collective self interest of all Americans.

Which begs a question: is there something unique about Americans such that the service of their needs would demand disregarding the needs of others, or conversely, that the service of the needs of others would necessarily result in a loss for Americans?

But here’s a novel idea: what if the question about America’s role in Syria was framed in the following way — that the central question became: what will serve the interests of the Syrian people?

If America was to serve a greater good, there would surely be some reward this side of heaven. Likewise, if American action (or inaction) is generally seen as having caused more harm, then there will be a price.

So the questions then becomes much more humble and realistic and less focused on American identity, interests, or strategic objectives: Can America firstly act in a way that avoids creating more harm — can it avoid prolonging the war in Syria? — and secondly, does it have the capacity to play a constructive role in bringing about a positive outcome?

The issue is far more complex than suggested by the crude reduction, for or against intervention.

As a precursor to answering those questions it would be useful to be clear about ways in which much of the debate is currently skewed.

Neither Iraq nor Libya provides a lens for looking at Syria — even while each should offer lessons learned.

Whatever is done in the name of combating terrorism is almost certainly ill-conceived.

Counter-terrorism afflicts the world much more pervasively and destructively than terrorism.

The value of a human life is not defined by nationality, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

National interest is a mirage. How can the common good be circumscribed by the artifice of national boundaries?

If our concern is not first and foremost with human interest then is not the alternative simply another name for self interest?

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