Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Weak Case for War

If you follow Eunomia, the recent New York Times columns by Ross Douthat and Anne-Marie Slaughter on the possibility of military intervention in Libya may seem like familiar ground. Slaughter advocates a "no fly zone", an approach challenged by others as inappropriate. Douthat implies that we should be cautious.

Douthat has received quite a bit of praise for his column from those who are skeptical of where a "no fly zone" would lead, and he does a good job of gently laying things out.
Moreover, even with the best-laid plans, warfare is always a uniquely high-risk enterprise — which means that the burden of proof should generally rest with hawks rather than with doves, and seven reasonable-sounding reasons for intervening may not add up to a single convincing case for war.

Advocates of a Libyan intervention don’t seem to have internalized these lessons. They have rallied around a no-flight zone as their Plan A for toppling Qaddafi, but most military analysts seem to think that it will fail to do the job, and there’s no consensus on Plan B. Would we escalate to air strikes? Arm the rebels? Sit back and let Qaddafi claim to have outlasted us?

If we did supply the rebels, who exactly would be receiving our money and munitions? Libya’s internal politics are opaque, to put it mildly. But here’s one disquieting data point, courtesy of the Center for a New American Security’s : Eastern Libya, the locus of the rebellion, sent more foreign fighters per capita to join the Iraqi insurgency than any other region in the Arab world.

And if the civil war dragged on, what then? Twice in the last two decades, in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, the United States has helped impose a no-flight zone. In both cases, it was just a stepping-stone to further escalation: bombing campaigns, invasion, occupation and nation-building.
Me? I'm feeling less patient. I am frustrated by calls for military action by people whose positions on Libya seem to shift with the wind. In the 1980's, Qaddafi was crazy, and an undisputed supporter of terrorists. In the 1990's he remained a tyrant, kept at arm's length by much of the west, but our interest in him and his regime diminished. In the 2000's, along came G.W. and all of a sudden Qaddafi was redeemed - because he gave up WMD programs that didn't appear to amount to much and allowing western investment - and he was held up by leaders like Bush and Blair like a trophy, "Exhibit A" that the "War on Terror" worked. And then, lo and behold, it turns out that he's still a tyrant and isn't eager to relinquish power to rebel factions and... it seems like we're back in the 80's.

As I've suggested before, sometimes it feels like the loudest voices for military intervention around the world began and ended their study of military conflict by watching episodes of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers - the good guys go up against opponents who are manifestations of pure evil, defeat them in clean, honorable battle with no collateral damage, and the world is saved! Not even the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can change their minds. ("All we're doing" is intervening in a civil war while engaging in an act of war against a nation that hasn't attacked us and shows no interest in doing so - first we bomb their air defenses, then we create a 'no fly zone' and then we win! What could possibly go wrong?")

Look, I can understand the sentiment that all you have to do to bring peace, love, understanding and freedom to a population that lives under a tyrant is to decapitate the regime. It's a perfectly appropriate belief to hold before you expose yourself to enough human and military history to see how things are more likely to turn out. Slaughter suggests that if we don't help defeat Qaddafi, "when Colonel Qaddafi massacres the opposition, young protesters across the Middle East will conclude that when we were asked to support their cause with more than words". Except, you know, sometimes the revolution brings to power somebody like Pol Pot or Rouhollah Khomeini. Frying pans, fires, and all that. So I'm with Douthat here - part of the process of deciding when and where to intervene has to be to look at what's likely to result from your intervention.

By virtue of my own frustration with the "Let's have another war" crowd, I do have a criticism of Douthat. The man simply can't bring himself to take a stand. He trots out the parade of horribles, "All this nasty stuff could happen if we intervene militarily in Libya," but he can't bring himself to state a stronger conclusion than "th[e] case [for war] has not yet been made". He's an opinion columnist, and I guess that does count (in a wishy-washy way) as an opinion. And no, I'm not trying to argue that he needs to rule out any possibility that a case could be made that would inspire him to change his mind. But after laying out a strong argument as to why the case has not been made for military intervention, would it have been too much for him to run with his own argument? To emphatically state that the burden of proof is properly placed on the proponents of the war, that we should not be tricked into excusing their failure to meet that burden by rhetorical flourish or by the type of doctored evidence that was at the heart of the case for the war in Iraq?

Is he afraid that he'll be accused of defending a tyrant, much the way skeptics of the war in Iraq were accused of being happy to let Hussein terrorize his people? If that's the worst that can happen, given his position and the fact that he's a reasonably good writer, he can pen a column explaining why that's a (deliberately) unfair and inflammatory argument. If not... come on, man. Take a stand.

Update: Robert Farley comments on the... should I say utilitarian views of the neocons?
Whether they leave the point implicit or explicit, the neocons are reasonably clear about their preferences; we should support the rebels to the extent that we can be certain that they’ll win, and then we should install and support whichever parts of the rebel alliance are most to our liking.
The difficulty comes, of course, when you hitch your wagon to the wrong star - Ahmed Chalabi or, as increasingly appears to be the case, Ahmed Karzai, and the like. It may turn out that, when the shooting is over, there's no part of the "rebel alliance" that's actually to your liking, or deems the person you had hoped would lead and shape the "rebel alliance" into a new government to be wholly unacceptable. And it may be that your anointed leader for the new era is almost as problematic, albeit perhaps in different ways, than the leader you deposed.


  1. "A weak case for war?"

    How about, no case for war.

    The "raison d'etre" of the US military is to protect the Constitution of the US from all enemies foreign and domestic. It does that by being really good at breaking things and killing people.

    From what I can see - there is already a surplus of broken things and dead people in Libya - and no "threat" to the US that will be lessened by our dropping bombs on the Libyans.

    It boggles the mind how quickly people can go from "no more nation building" to "let's send in the troops" because we feel like we need to do something.

    Of course the people (in both political camps) who seem most interested in "sending in the troops" tend (not always, but tend) to be the folks who have not served and who have absolutely no desire to ever see a member of their own family serve in the military.


  2. I was trying to give Douthat some benefit of the doubt, as he does a decent job refuting the arguments for war, but you're correct - as it stands "There's No Case For War".


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