Monday, March 21, 2011

To support the military intervention in Libya or not?

I'm not sure what to do about Libya. I'm generally a liberal interventionist, though less of one after the Iraq War, and I do think that some humanitarian crises demand military action. But is the situation in Libya a humanitarian crisis? Or is there otherwise a good reason to intervene? Do we intervene just because we don't like Qaddafi? Or because he's an easier target than other dictators? And if in Libya, why not elsewhere -- say, in Bahrain, or North Korea?

Questions, questions, questions. As Fred Kaplan asked (and as I blogged about last week):

What is the desired goal of this action? Is it to pressure Qaddafi to stand down? Is it to provide air cover to the rebels, so they can fight Qaddafi's ground forces on more equal footing? Whatever the goal, if the no-fly zone doesn't get us there, should we try other means? And if not, why not? As Clausewitz wrote, war is politics by other means. War is fought for a political objective. If that objective is important enough to justify one form of military intervention, why not another form? What is the goal? How far are you willing to go to accomplish the goal? How important is the goal?

Is there even a goal, or we just taking this one step at a time? With Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in our memories (and with the latter war still ongoing, and not well), should we not have a better sense of what the hell we're doing? And of what the cost is going to be, or, rather, of what cost we can expect, both in human and monetary terms? (What can we expect? What are we willing to put up with?)

Regardless, I do generally support the current military effort, not least because it is not a unilateral effort but an international one with the British and French taking lead roles. The Iraq War in particular soured our appreciation for military intervention of any kind, and perhaps rightly so, but ask yourself this: Do you not want Qaddafi removed from power? Do you not think we should be not just expressing our support for the Libyan opposition but, given that Qaddafi has the power to crush it but actively supporting its efforts? Sure, there is inconsistency here. Again, we're intervening in Libya but not in North Korea, a far more horrendous state. But there will never be consistency. Almost by definition, military intervention must be ad hoc. And not intervening in North Korea, or even in Bahrain, does not mean that all intervention is thereby illegitimate.

But now let me disagree with myself. Will any good actually come of this intervention? Perhaps not, given how messy the situation is. As Josh Marshall writes, making a strong case against intervention:

No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

And this doesn't even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of 'The West versus lands of Islam' drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobilization some public or international opinion against us.

I just don't know. Even if the intentions are good, there is just so much that could go badly here. And yet, isn't that always the risk? Given our bipolar partisan political culture, we're all expected to pick a side. I'm just not sure I can. I'm for doing something, and something relatively aggressive, but I'm just not sure this is it.

I'm sorry I'm not more decisive, but it concerns me that people are being decisive without any good reason to be other than ideological inclination or pure partisanship.

But if the intervention in Libya may well be a no-win situation, what is clear is that for Obama it doesn't matter what he does, he will be severely criticized. Politically, it's an almost absolute no-win situation for him, and the only way he comes out of it looking good is it the intervention somehow succeeds without much consequential damage, which seems unlikely. The allies may be targeting Qaddafi and his forces, but at home it's Obama who's the target, and he's taking it from all sides:

-- On the left, Ralph Nader thinks Obama should be impeached for war crimes. In the House, Democrats are questioning the legality of the attacks. Dennis Kucinich is even talking impeachment.

-- On the right, John McCain, to whom the media always turn on military matters (because he apparently still has credibility), supports Obama (more or less) but thinks he waited too long to act. Richard Lugar, a devout realist, thinks we could be in for endless humanitarian war. And John Boehner wants Obama to explain U.S. objectives more clearly.

Actually, let me quote Boehner:

Before any further military commitments are made, the administration must do a better job of communicating to the American people and to Congress about our mission in Libya and how it will be achieved.

You know what? That makes sense. I'm usually extremely critical of Boehner (and of the party he leads), but Obama should indeed explain himself, and this action, to the American people. After Iraq and Afghanistan, if not generally, they deserve no less.

And it would help because while the intervention isn't unilateral, and while British and French leadership gives the U.S. some cover, the action isn't going over all that well in the Arab world:

The Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, deplored the broad scope of the U.S.-European bombing campaign in Libya and said Sunday that he would call a league meeting to reconsider Arab approval of the Western military intervention.

The last thing the U.S. needs is opposition from Arab and other Muslim states. The intervention must be seen, and must be, not just a U.S.-European effort to remove an undesirable leader but a broad international effort to support an oppressed people. Even if the allies don't have ulterior motives (oil, for example), the perception of a Western attack on yet another Muslim state, and an attempt to control that state, must be avoided. And it's understandable why many in the Muslim world might perceive this to be precisely that.

Obama has explained himself, but not sufficiently. And that, in part, is why I'm still on the fence, and I suspect why many others are as well. Yes, the U.S. was right to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo. Yes, it is shameful that the international community ignored Rwanda. Yes, there is good reason to seek Qaddafi's ouster and to free Libya from the shackles of tyranny. But... but... but... we're living in the shadow of the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we're right to be skeptical.

Needless to say, now that it's started I hope the intervention goes well. But we need a much clearer sense of the objectives than we have now, and we need to know how far our leaders are willing to do. Until then, we must remain vigilant in our criticism.

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  • Well said. Skepticism is in order. Leaders, journalists and citizens must not forget the lessons of Iraq, specifically the blind support offered by the media in the lead-up to the invasion. I don't think it's possible for anyone to be fully in support of this mission. That said, watching Obama's speech announcing military action to enforce the U.N. resolution, it didn't look or sound like Obama himself was too excited about U.S. involvement.

    By Blogger Muddy Politics, at 5:56 AM  

  • First of all, the question begs to be asked, "Is this,in fact, really a "Humanitarian" intervention? Is it an "Oil" thing? There are despots all over the world killing their citizens and we are not bombing them, are we? Why not? If Egypt had oil, would we still be there? Finally, how can we afford all this military action when everyone in Congress is screaming "Austerity?" How can we find money for conflict and not for needed social programs?

    By Blogger John, at 8:58 AM  

  • I'd feel a lot less skeptical and cynical of our military interventions in general and the current one in particular if it weren't quite so obvious that we conveniently turn a blind eye to human rights violations in countries with which we're currently doing business or which haven't got much to offer in the way of resources in return for our assistance.

    By Anonymous Bluestocking, at 10:37 AM  

  • Whenever you use the armed forces, you create part of the rationalization for next time.

    How can anyone question the use of force, if force is always just another option, and often the one used, regardless of the situation.

    It is self-perpetuating and serves only to create profit for those making toys for the military.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:50 PM  

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