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Libya Roundup

One of the loyal readers and commenters here, Zach, has requested a Libya post so I’ve roundup some insightful commentary from around the web. Instead of just setting up a for-and-against framework, I’ve deliberately posted Libya inspired observations rather than generic arguments – this also gives me more leeway highlighting non-experts.

I resisted adding my own thoughts on the intervention for a while because of how little I know about the internal dynamics of Libya. I tend to think that the extraordinary complexity of weighing potential unintended consequences of militarily intervention should bias us against it in most cases. Many “conservatives” believe we can’t manage the delivery of healthcare without it leading to disastrous effects; I’m not sure how anyone can simultaneously believe that government can positively inject itself in the internal politics of foreign cultures. Yet I continue to be persuaded toward action by the humanitarian disaster caused by a brutal autocrat.

I don’t know the answer to this question but, do we have a moral responsibility to stop obvious and preventable massive bloodshed in places like Libya even if the potential exists for greater long run harm? The potential isn’t remote – it may arguably be likely – but it is still only potential.

Anyway… these people think things about Libya:

Economist Mark Thoma with concision:

We have enough money to pay for military action in Libya, but not for job creation?

Glenn Greenwald explains how he approaches arguments after blasting Kevin Drum’s remark:

When I criticize a specific idea, I usually do so not by examining it in the abstract, but by focusing on a particular person’s expression of that idea. That’s how one avoids fighting strawmen and ensuring accountability (I strongly prefer “X wrote” instead of “some say”). But the focus for me is always on the idea, not its personal advocate. The point of this post was not that Kevin Drum is a mindless, subservient follower of the President’s (the fact that I said I read him regularly and find it worthwhile should make clear that I don’t think that). The point was that Kevin Drum expressed an idea that I found worthy of criticism, both because it was wrong and consequential (consequential because I encounter it frequently enough to make it worthy of examination). That style of engaging arguments (“X said Y and it’s very wrong”) can sometimes appear more personal than it is (especially for the person whose idea is being criticized), but it almost never is about the person; identifying a specific expression of an idea is, in my view, the only way to criticize the idea honestly and rigorously.

Despite Jon Chait correctly pointing out that the question of whether or not we intervene in Libya is only about Libya, Ezra Klein questions why we feel so compelled to stop this disaster when there are so many others. It’s also curious why support for humanitarian assistance is a moral obligation for some only if it involves military force.

The easy response to this is to ask how I can be so diffident in the face of slaughter. But consider Obama’s remarks. “Left unchecked,” he said, “we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die.” Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could due to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?

Rand Paul argues that Congress still should exist. I agree.

Marc Lynch points out the favorable but fragile Arab opinion on this intervention:

From what I can see, many people broadly sympathetic to Arab interests and concerns are out of step with Arab opinion this time.    In the Arab public sphere, this is not another Iraq — though, as I’ve warned repeatedly, it could become one if American troops get involved on the ground and there is an extended, bloody quagmire. This administration is all too aware of the dangers of mission creep, escalation, and the ticking clock on Arab and international support which so many of us have warned against.  They don’t want another Iraq, as Obama made clear…. even if it is not obvious that they can avoid one.

Andrew Sullivan applies the logic of welfare reform:

When you see nation-building as a very expensive and usually counterproductive form of international welfare – you can see why its logic never ends. Intervention creates dependency which prevents departure. Like government programs, these wars have a life of their own. Afghanistan seems as ineradicable as the mohair subsidy. And it develops its own constituency: the Pentagon that doesn’t want to be seen to fail, the NGOs and contractors that follow in a swarm, and the fear of any president that he might be seen as a defeatist or weak if he truly pulls the plug.

Sullivan also remarks, “What has been truly thrilling about the Arab Spring – as with the Green Revolution in Iran – was the irrelevance of America and the West.” He clearly believes it is necessary for the Arab world to progress on their own. He might be right – I often have that instinct as well – but, why? It’s not like history proves democracy has to develop entirely on its own. France helped America after all. That’s clearly not like Iraq or Afghanistan, but could it be closer to Libya? I’m also uncomfortable with his euphemism here, “if you reduce the US’s thumb on the scales of sectarian conflict in, say, Iraq, a more sustainable equilibrium will emerge.” i.e. One side wins by slaughtering the other side.

Bryan Caplan makes the case for pacifism. (Not specifically inspired by Libya but worth thinking about even if I’m not completely persuaded):

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain. Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences. One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts aremuch more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

Juan Cole believes you shouldn’t advocate war if you’re able to fight in it and don’t. (via Greenwald)

Although I do not believe that everyone who advocates a war must go and fight it, I do believe that young men who advocate a war must go and fight it. . . . I don’t think there is anything at all unpatriotic about a young man opposing a war and declining to enlist. But a young man (and this applies to W. and Cheney too) who mouths off strongly about the desirability of a war is a coward and a hypocrite if he does not go to fight it.

I’m not sure I fully agree, but it’s probably a good litmus test most of the time. The problem is clearly in situations like Libya that don’t involve (yet/conventional) ground forces. Am I willing to fight in Afghanistan right now? No, and that’s probably a good indicator of what I think about its current merits. Would I be willing to risk working on a ship that fired cruise missiles at Gaddafi’s forces? Yes, but I’m not trained to do anything like that. With a volunteer military most service members enlist before any policy is decided.

I think the cliche about soldiers not fighting for ideals or country but for one another is true – so in a sense very few soldiers ever fight in a war because they think a particular war is just or necessary. Does it really make sense for a young adult to commit close to a decade of his life to the military and all that comes with it if he advocates for a limited intervention into someplace like Libya? What if the mission changes (as it always does) mid-route? The commitment the soldier made wouldn’t be nullified. Soldiers also don’t get to decide their deployment or duties. It’s not clear that it’s in the military’s interest to have volunteers approach joining in that way.

Feel free to add your own thoughts on Libya.

Categories: Libya
  1. Bill
    April 5, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    I think it is appropriate, based on historical premise, that we should be skeptical of any military endeavors by the United States. This skepticism could be attenuated by a congressional debate as Rand Paul suggests, but even then, looking at the Iraq war for example, facts presented to congress may be tenuous as well. Whether military action is called for “humanitarian” reasons, the support of “democracy”, or the pre-emptive fight against “terrorism”, it no longer holds credibility when for so many military efforts this rhetoric has not only been exploited at great cost but often fails to carry with it substantial facts such as cost and end-game. Sorry, but my faith in the military-industrial complex has been breeched too many times for me to blindly trust it without being skeptical.

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