On Libya and the Moral Case Against Intervention
Andrew Sullivan asks several:
“If the no-fly-no-drive zone fails to protect Benghazi from Qaddafi, are we then obliged to intervene on the ground? What the UN Resolution seems to require is protection of civilians. But if the methods authorized fail to do so, do we then just give up and give Qaddafi not just a victory against his own people but also against the West?
On the other hand, what are the US’s obligations if the protection of Benghazi is successful? Are we required to provide food or arms to the rebels? And if the UN Resolution passes, hasn’t the US essentially told the rebels to fight on? Having done that, do we not have a moral obligation to support them in an open-ended civil war?
How much is this estimated to cost? What programs are being cut in order to afford this?
It seems to me that this new war ignores every single lesson of the recent past. There is no clear goal. There is no exit plan. The American public opposes it. However tarted-up the coalition is, in the end, we all know that this will become a US responsibility. And we do know that if we break it, we own it, do we not?
If we are prepared to do this in Libya, why not in Congo, where the casualties and brutality have been immensely greater? Or Zimbabwe?
In endorsing the rebels, have we not forgotten the nonviolence that was the core mainspring of the Arab 1848 and legitimized much more divisive means of regime change?”
Earlier this week, Ross Douthat put many similar questions to the more interventionist among us:
“Does anyone seriously think that the United States bears just as much responsibility for the horrors of the Congolese civil war (which we “let fester,” in Feaver’s phrase) as it does for the post-invasion violence in Iraq? As much responsibility for the casualties in, say, the various India-Pakistan wars as for the casualties in our own war in Vietnam? As much responsibility for the deaths in Europe from 1914 to 1917 as for the deaths in the Philippines during our occupation of those islands? We may bear a shareof responsibility for casualties that result from our inaction rather than our actions, but the two ledgers aren’t comparable.
To argue otherwise would be to multiply American obligations beyond reason. At a time when one of our closest friends, Japan, is reeling from natural and nuclear disasters and requires aid that only our military can provide, and another important ally, Saudi Arabia, is testing our alliance by sending troops into a neighboring country to squelch popular protests, the idea that the American government should also be held directly responsible for failing to prevent the casualties being inflicted by Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya’s civil war strains credibility.”
This is what I’m not hearing from those railing against the U.S. intervening in Libya. I understand, and I think most would be hard pressed to refute, the arguments stating the absurdity of starting a protracted conflict in a third Muslim country, our inability to afford any kind of substantive campaign, and the lack of clarity among all the major players as to what the goals are and what the end game is.
But what about the moral side of the ledger? If those are the material reasons against intervention, premised on national interest, what are the moral ones? While Douthat is arguing that it’s not the consequences in and of themselves that matter but whether we are meeting our obligation. Sullivan reiterates the material questions with urgency, but won’t attend to the more difficult moral ones. If Obama were to turn over a contract of sorts laying out in rather precise detail what the costs would be for this excursion, its strict goals, its limits, and the probabilities associated with various outcomes, what would his argument be then? There is a moral argument to be made against intervention, I can feel it lingering in the abstract ether waiting to be realized in the prose of some writer or speaker, but as of yet this hasn’t really happened.
If the discussion surrounding this intervention is to be fruitful at all, it must work to separate our material concerns from our moral ones.
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Instituting a norm of humanitarian intervention would help realize this goal; I’d argue Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment all point to a case for the morality of humanitarian intervention. From this perspective, humanitarian intervention resituates the individual as the center of interest in international relations, de-centering the state. That is to say, human security would be reinforced with a norm of humanitarian intervention. State sovereignty would be circumscribed in ways that favor the individual, possibly deterring leaders considering pursuing gross, widespread violations of human rights as a tactic for staying in power. A norm of humanitarian intervention acting to deter gross violations of human rights would make the international system a more humane and safe place for its ultimate end, the welfare of individual human beings.”
Whether or not one finds that argument agreeable or not, it does address that moral side of the equation. Does Douthat, who thinks we do have some responsibility to Libya as the most powerful single nation, think this duty is expunged at the first sign of inconvenience? And this is critical. If we have no duty to any other country that is one thing. If we only have duties to those peoples with whom we have entered into a an international agreement that is another. But if we do have some sort of obligation (in the moral sense), to all instances of humanity we encounter, we need to be clear about why these obligations end where they do, and if there is a “morally” defensible reason for that, or if it is simply that moral action is a luxury we can not always afford. I am extremely favorable toward this latter view, that the price of morality is sometimes unaffordable, and that this is one of those circumstances. But being clear and upfront about these things now is central if we are to avoid BOTH future protracted military engagement (which is never good for anyone, except private “contractors”) AND future preventable mass violence.
Creon mentioned Peter Singerin his post and I will use him here as well.
Douthat and others want to call foul on the interventionists for doing the moral math without accounting for “conditions on the ground,” but indeed fail themselves to account for why exactly the U.S. is only slightly obliged toward human beings in Libya. Asking why we shouldn’t involve ourselves in this instance unless we are willing to do it always and forever is like saying that no one should ever feed a homeless person unless they are willing to commit themselves to alleviating hunger everywhere, all the time. My own view is that there is a strong case to be made for not becoming involved. Whatever the costs, I can think of a much more self-interested way for them to be paid. And I myself would not take up a gun to fight with the Libyan rebels. The costs would be large, and the risks high, and I can think of a million and one things I would rather do, and that would make my life better and those of my loved ones better. But that kind of tribalism is not self-evidently moral, if it is moral at all. And making the case AGAINST intervention should go further than just skeptical inquiry and logistical ambiguities.