The debate over the extent of US involvement in Libya is heating up, and a predictable cluster of analysts are claiming that we a backing into serious endeavor with no clear strategy, with confused ethics, raising process above substance, etc. I say predictable, because it looks increasingly like the ‘usual suspects‘ of liberal internationalist hawks and neo-cons who helped gin up the war on terror (GWoT) that by almost any benchmark has gone pretty badly astray. The gist of seems to be that Obama is a ditherer so we are drifting through this. Republicans of course will hammer Obama for this.
This strikes me as somewhat unfair (even though all the links above are worth your time and most of the points are fair). So here is a case for the limited, we’re-not-quite-sure-what-we-are-doing, we-hope-the-allies-and-Arabs-will-do-more intervention we just started. (For an R2P defense, try this.)
1. The narrowing time window in Libya forced the West’s hand before a serious strategic discussion could be fleshed out. Ideally, we would have had something like Obama’s serious, months-long deliberation on Afghanistan in 2009. All the big voices could be heard – western militaries and parliaments especially. A public opinion debate in western media could have generated at least some basic consensus among elites and publics both within and across the coalition’s member states. But war of course does not wait for strategists and planners to hammer out all the details, or for long public debates. Just about any basic strategy course will tell you how much unpredictability conflict generates and how actors frequently have to ad-lib and flim-flam their way through these sorts of engagements. New events pop up out of nowhere (Arab Spring); wholly unforeseen consequences suddenly loom (like a Libyan bloodbath); previous ‘certainties’ evaporate as new actors, atrocities, resources, etc. enter the picture (who are the Libyan rebels anyway?). Sometimes, the pressure of time simply cannot be avoided. I argued last week that if Libya were to evolve into a Bosnian-style bloodbath, the West would have to intervene, and fairly quickly. Inevitably that means that the operation will be organized on the fly and be fairly sloppy. Yet the alternative was so much worse. So yes, this thing is a mess, but it’s not too bad so far – let’s be fair – and the alternative of Gadhafi’s Gestapo tactics in eastern Libya is downright chilling. To my mind, western leaders deserve genuine congratulations at this point for pulling together some kind of reasonably coordinated campaign that no one really wanted very fast that has achieved the stated goals of the UN Security Council resolution. That’s not bad at all actually…
2. The US use of force is increasingly de-coupled from anything but presidential decision, but constitutionally, democracies really needed to wait and ‘dither’ a little bit. Andrew Sullivan has made this point very well. The case for ‘dithering’ is actually a good one, because the democracies really should not change into war without some public debate and consultation. Anyone whose studied the evolution of US foreign policy since WWII knows the (and should worry about) the increasing presidentialization of US war-making authority. The US has not declared war since WWII. The US has fought Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 1 and 2, and Afghanistan without formal constitutional authority from Congress (Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution). No, this does not mean the US president is becoming a military dictator (read Chalmers Johnson if you think so), but it is unnerving and increasingly undemocratic. So I think Obama did the right thing, by American law, in waiting for a least little while so that their could be some debate in the Congress and US public on this. This would apply to France and Britain as well.
3. The US is overstretched. This should be so strikingly obvious to everyone – except neo-cons I suppose – that is a very good reason to dither and otherwise look for a light, low impact intervention before lots of grandiose rhetoric about Clausewitz and such. This is premature it seems to me. This is not yet a major national mobilization in the West for a huge war. Maybe we can move through this with minimal intervention. We don’t know, but why isn’t it worth a try? If have to really ramp up to pursue a Clausewitzian victory (win big through a massive military strike at the heart of the enemy and get the awful, unpredictable business of war over as fast as possible), we can. But remember that Clausewitz was writing for interstate war traditionally defined. He didn’t think too much about insurgencies or foreign interventions for limited political gains in a revolutionary situation. Clearly invading Libya (‘boots on the ground’) would be a major new commitment when we really can’t afford that, and the likelihood it would backfire is huge. In that sort of environment, bombing to stop atrocities is not such a bad compromise.
4. Kosovo is not such a bad model after all. In 1999, NATO bombed the Serbs into (something like) submission in Kosovo. We helped the Kosovo Liberation Army even the odds, and today Kosovo is not that bad. It’s not great, but at least there is no ethnic cleansing. The conflict had (some) multilateral legitimacy, and while it angered Russia, it did not provoke a new Cold War which a heavier footprint might have. This was organized by most under-appreciated general in recent US history – Wesley Clark (probably because he is a Democrat whom the GOP cannot lionize). If you haven’t read his book on his work in the Balkans, you should. It is the likely model for Libya, even if the GOP thinks it is wimpy, violates Clausewitzian rules, and cedes the initiative to the French and Arabs.
5. Iraq really should give everyone pause and does, very obviously, argue for caution and last-resort thinking, at least for now. Anyone even passably familiar with the US budget should know that US unipolarity is on the ropes. No, the US should not suffer from an Iraq or Vietnam syndrome. But the GWoT has become such a mess, that does anyone really think that US public opinion (not interventionist elites, mind you) want some huge commitment? Yes, Americans and the West want to stop horrific atrocities; the ‘CNN effect’ is real, and we should try where we can (Rwanda should have taught us that). But I can’t imagine that the US voter, who really wants to leave Afghanistan and Iraq, wants to hear about Clausewitz in Libya. We have to balance our desire to help with American exhaustion and reticence after a decade of war. Hence, Obama’s middling approach is actually a fair response to contradictory pressures, it seems to me.
If you consider all these factors – to go in early and hard against Gadhafi (when it would have helped the rebels most, and because America ‘leads’ not ‘dithers’) vs. to stay out altogether (because we have no idea what we are doing and have just thrown this together at the last minute) – I think Obama, Clinton, Sarkozy, and Cameron actually found a pretty good middle course that can basically be summarized as ‘bombing for human rights.’ Yes, that is confused, messy, hardly a rousing call to arms and patriotism, dithering, possibly oxymoronic, and so on. But it balances well all the contradictory pressures listed above, which must be awfully hard this late in the history of the GWoT and Arab Spring. So before we tear them apart on the op-ed pages, let’s at least give them a chance. We will continue to debate this as war goes on; we can change course if we really need to because of new circumstances; and the West (and even the Arab League!) should be proud of itself for having prevented an almost certain bloodbath. That seems like a pretty good record so far.