Monday, March 21, 2011

Idealism and Realism about Libya

We’re at war, and this time we liberals can’t blame it on George Bush. That’s undoubtedly good news for the Libyan insurgents holed up in Benghazi. But we liberals are divided on the issue of whether, on balance, it’s good or bad news for the United States.

On the one side you have liberal supporters of humanitarian intervention like the editors of The New Republic congratulating Obama for his (belated) decision to intervene against the Gaddafi regime (my emphasis):
Skeptics of the intervention . . . have argued that one of the mission’s flaws is that its goals are woefully unclear. Are we trying to topple Qaddafi? Are we merely trying to create a safe-haven for rebels in the east? These are fair questions, but it seems to us that the most immediate goals of the mission were quite clear: first, to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, a slaughter that Qaddafi himself had promised was only hours away; and second, to tip the balance of power in the rebellion away from Qaddafi, so that his forces were unable to retake any more of the country, thus extinguishing the resistance for good. On these terms, the intervention has already been a success.

“As for what comes next: It is difficult to say whether Western airpower can tip the balance of power toward the rebels so dramatically that they will be able to topple Qaddafi. We certainly hope so. But even if it does not, an intervention that at least allows the rebels to maintain a free zone in Libya will certainly be a better outcome than the alternative—a Libya reunited under Qaddafi’s iron control.”
On the other side you have liberal “realists” like Josh Marshall (my emphasis):
“So let's review: 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 can imagine many of the criticisms of the points I've made. And listening to them I think I'd find myself agreeing in general with a lot of it. But it strikes me as a mess, poorly conceived, ginned up by folks with their own weird agendas, carried out at a point well past the point that it was going to accomplish anything. Just all really bad.”
I don’t have anything distinctive to say that will change your mind about whether one argument or the other is stronger. Like a lot of people, I’m of two minds about intervening militarily in what amounts to a Libyan civil war. I recognize that there’s a compelling humanitarian argument for doing what it takes to stop Gaddafi and a compelling counterargument that we shouldn’t be assuming obligations that we’ll regret undertaking in hindsight when we realize how burdensome it will be to discharge them. Yet when I do my best to weigh these considerations against each other, I’m having a hard time finding a scale. It’s not just that I lack the foresight to calculate the expected costs and benefits of alternative courses of action with any precision. It’s like I’m asking myself whether an explosion is louder or softer than a boulder is heavy.

Look a little more closely at what they’ve said and ask yourself: are the people I’ve quoted doing any better than I am?

The New Republic editors don’t even pretend to know what our intervention is intended to accomplish much less to have calculated the expected payoffs of intervention and non-intervention. All they give us is the conclusory statement that “an intervention that at least allows the rebels to maintain a free zone in Libya will certainly be a better outcome than the alternative—a Libya reunited under Qaddafi’s iron control.” Doubtless, that’s true as far as the well-being of anti-Gaddafi Libyans goes. But do you see any indication that The New Republic’s editors have even tried to determine whether the benefits our intervention will confer on them outweighs the burdens it will impose on us? Me neither. And even if they did, what rate of exchange are they applying to benefits generated for Libyans and the cost in blood, treasure and strategic advantage born by us?  They don't, and from all indications can't, say.

By the same token, how can Marshall say there’s “[n]o clear . . . humanitarian interest for military intervention”? He can’t be speaking literally after Gaddafi proclaimed his determination “to cleanse” Benghazi of his political opponents. Marshall’s point can only be that any humanitarian imperative arguing for intervention is inconsiderable when weighed against the combination of national interests on the other side. What Gaddafi is threatening to do “is ugly and it's brutal but,” Marshall reminds us, “a lot of people getting killed in a failed rebellion isn't genocide.” However bad it may be, the massacre of Gaddafi’s opponents doesn’t pass the threshold where it should engage our regrets about not intervening earlier in the Balkans or intervening at all in Rwanda during the 1990s. Apparently, as far as Marshall's concerned, any atrocity short of genocide doesn’t count.

So let’s stop kidding ourselves. The argument among liberals, and between liberals and conservatives, over Libya has a lot more to do with the reduction of cognitive dissonance than with genuine intellectual disputation. The advocates of intervention have persuaded themselves that (just as in Afghanistan and Iraq) we’re confronting a win-win situation where we can act on our humanitarian ideals while advancing our strategic interests. The opponents have persuaded themselves that intervention is a lose-lose proposition inasmuch as our efforts at protecting Libyans will probably be ineffective in the short run and cause us all kinds of pain in the long run.

Neither side has much to say to people trying to reckon intelligently with the possibility that we live in a world in which doing good sometimes causes bad things to happen and undertaking painful tasks sometimes does a world of good.  That's hardly surprising inasmuch as, despite our pretenses about rational foreign policy-making, we haven't really figured out how to navigate through that kind of world.


Anonymous said...

I agree - tough tough choices and very difficult to navigate through this kind of world. I'm just glad we have a president who is on top of things down there in South America, with his wife and family, eating empanadas, and occasionally heading over to his tent to check on basketball scores.

Lone Wolf said...

It takes guts for a president both to apply military force when the outcome is uncertain and when not to apply it because in serves his idea of the national interest even if that means letting a dictator kill his subjects. At the end of the day, the quality of a president's gut matters more than his intellect. I'm a liberal who's having a harder and harder time trusting Obama's gut.

Anonymous said...

To Lone Wolf: this is America. Why can't we have a president who has a quality intellect and a quality gut? We'll have to wait till 2012, I guess.