After the Fact

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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40 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    That claim of Sullivan’s is preposterous, but it’s not remotely relevant to an analysis of whether this action as proposed, taking conditions as they are described by the proponents, was justified. It is certainly not the case that we can’t watch a slaughter, but that would make it no less right to stop this one, if indeed it was right to. The description is just superfluous fluff.Report

    • Freddie in reply to Michael Drew says:

      You really have your dancing shoes on for this one.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Freddie says:

        Getting policy right (which I am not claiming was done here) is complicated, and requires a lot of really fancy dancing as a matter of course. So obviously the words used to describe policy that’s been gotten right will be complicated and fancy. That’s a general rule, IMHO.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Michael Drew says:

          Actually, while I do think that is accurate, I take it back as a response. Looking at what I wrote there, it was straightforward and simple. You’re just wrong.Report

  2. JohnR says:

    Ah, hubris. Maybe the old Greeks were onto something, eh?Report

  3. Freddie says:

    It’s a bizarre, bizarre statement. Gobsmacking, really.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    I admit to not being a fan of arguments of the form “you can’t volunteer at this soup kitchen because you didn’t volunteer at a different soup kitchen last week”.

    That said, I am less of a fan of arguments of the form “I cannot *NOT* volunteer at soup kitchens!” when one volunteers at a soup kitchen this week and one did not volunteer at a different soup kitchen last week.Report

    • Barry in reply to Jaybird says:

      Jaybird, the point people are trying to make (IMHO) is that our interventions tend to be limited to cases where oil is at stake, with the exception of 9/11. For example, Côte d’Ivoire is currently either experiencing a massacre or the final preparations for one, and the US will do jack about it.

      In Bahrain, if you were an ordinary person and there was any US-made/sold/supported military hardware around you, you’d better hit the dirt, because it’s being turned on you. And don’t both signalling to the US Navy ships sitting in their port; they aren’t there to prevent any mass murder that the government of Bahrain and Saudia Arabia are doing.

      And so on, and so on………………………….Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Barry says:

        So we shouldn’t intervene in Libya because we’re not going to intervene in the Ivory Coast, Bahrain, or Saudi?

        If we promised that we *WOULD* intervene in those three places, could we then intervene in Libya?

        Imagine all of the lives we could save and all of the people who would finally be free of the shackles they wear!

        (Of course the problem is that “DOING SOMETHING!” always has more moral weight in an argument than “none of my business”… because “AT LEAST WE TRIED!” is seen as a legitimate defense when everything that your critics said would happen eventually happens… and, praise Allah, it looks like Libya will not necessarily have everything the critics said would eventually happen happen. This will make it easier for the next guy to intervene even quicker.)Report

  5. Scott says:

    Maybe Sullivan should rephrase his statement to say, America is simply incapable of watching a slaughter take place – anywhere in the world – and not [moving] to do what we can to prevent it if it gets a lot of press and the politicians think that they will get criticized for not intervening.

    Of course, now that Barry says that stopping the slaughter of civilians is in the US national security interest, we may be intervening more often.Report

  6. Jaybird says:

    Something’s sure playing havoc with our moral reasoning here, isn’t it?

    Moral reasoning may be the problem.
    Perhaps we ought to explore the upsides of callousness, selfishness, and indifference. (On an institutional level, I mean. On a personal level we can still be directly hooked into God’s Thoughts.)Report

  7. Rufus F. says:

    I don’t want to let the statement off the hook here; but having now read that post, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say it’s Sullivan’s statement- he seems to be summarizing what he takes Obama to be saying- so really if that’s right, we should be criticizing Obama for such an untrue statement. It’s also more worthwhile to do so, since Sullivan wasn’t the one calling the shots here.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Rufus F. says:

      It’s strange post, to be sure, and full of inconsistencies. The quote above is almost flatly inconsistent with this from the very next paragraph: “Yes, we could not do this everywhere all the time; but we could do this when we did; and that was good enough.”

      If we can’t do it all the time, then we are capable of standing by and watching a slaughter. Maybe not willing or happy about it, but capable by force of circumstance just the same.Report

  8. Politicians who feel so stirred by events taking place in soverign nations boundaries should not force their uneasiness upon the US public through enacting war interventions on those nations that consume the wealth and lives of Americans.

    We are not the worlds police. I am not a pacifist. Attack me, my family or my country and you better be prepared. I am saying this because I don’t believe you go to war to kill people for humanitarian reasons and especially when your most deadly foe is embedded within those your helping.

    America is facing it worst crisis since its founding and no I’m not talking about the debt. I am talking about our leadership. We have a crisis in leadership. Our leaders are so concerned that they will have to live with the decisions they have been making that every decision they now make is based upon keeping their jobs which are protected from their bad decsions. They have violated the Constitution making laws that separate them from us, insulating themselves.

    Two term limits and no full retirement and no sweet benefit package should be available to elected politicians. They should fund their own 401K pay into Social Security and not get any special bennies for being an elected public servant unless every American gets exactly the same.Report

  9. North says:

    I just shake my head over the mess of it but either this intervention is something Obama really believes in or he’s allowed himself to be pushed a long way by Hillary et all. There certainly isn’t any domestic political benefit to this unless he somehow turn it into a Yugoslavia.

    I half think that either Obama or Hillary want to replicate Bill’s achievement with ousting Miloševi? so as both to bracket the GOP’s foreign adventures and to try and match Bills’ achievement (luck?).

    Either way, while I certainly hope for the best, I don’t think it was a very good idea. It’ll all depend on how it turns out. If we get a liberated Kosovo on the multilateral and cheap result then Obama’s going to benefit but I shudder to think of what happens if we find ourselves saddled with a Somalia, an Iraq or an Afghanistan in North Africa instead.

    As for Sullivan, I think his incoherence on this is coming from his deep fondness for Obama colliding head on with his deep regret about Iraq and his dislike of this adventure. I keep expecting a burning wagon wheel to roll off of the dish every time a read him on the subject and I’m saying this as a fan.Report

    • 62across in reply to North says:

      North –

      I don’t think this decision has anything to do with matching Bill Clinton in Yugoslavia, though there is precedent there for a successful effort.

      I think this part of Obama’s address has not gotten as much play as it should:

      “Moreover, America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him. A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful — yet fragile — transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”

      I find myself asking why Qatar and UAE are involved in the coalition. My conclusion is that they, as Arab countries with strong Western ties, see the spread of democracy in the region as a good thing for them. Mass graves in Benghazi would be a cold bucket of water on that movement.

      This explains some of the timing, I think.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to North says:

      He didn’t let himself get pushed around by Clinton. He let himself get pushed around by Smanatha Power, Susan Rice, and, especially, the Europeans.Report

      • 62across in reply to Michael Drew says:

        It’s only being “pushed around” if he doesn’t agree with the objectives of Powers, Rice and the Europeans. Do you have any evidence he doesn’t agree with their objectives?Report

  10. There was an excellent piece in Newsweek by Niall Ferguson where he talked about America’s fondness for revolutions and how idealism trumps good sense:

    Americans love a revolution. Their own great nation having been founded by a revolutionary declaration and forged by a revolutionary war, they instinctively side with revolutionaries in other lands, no matter how different their circumstances, no matter how disastrous the outcomes. This chronic reluctance to learn from history could carry a very heavy price tag if the revolutionary wave currently sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East breaks with the same shattering impact as most revolutionary waves.

    Time and again, Americans have hailed revolutions, only to fall strangely silent as those same revolutions proceeded to devour not only their own children but many other people’s too. In each case the body count was in the millions.

    So as you watch revolution sweeping through the Arab world (and potentially beyond), remember these three things about non-American revolutions:

    – They take years to unfold. It may have seemed like glad confident morning in 1789, 1917, and 1949. Four years later it was darkness at noon.

    -They begin by challenging an existing political order, but the more violence is needed to achieve that end, the more the initiative passes to men of violence—Robespierre, Stalin, and the supremely callous Mao himself.

    -Because neighboring countries feel challenged by the revolution, internal violence is soon followed by external violence, either because the revolution is genuinely threatened by foreigners (as in the French and Russian cases) or because it suits the revolutionaries to blame an external threat for domestic problems (as when China intervened in the Korean War).

  11. dino says:

    Not only is America perfectly capable of watching a slaughter take place (Rwanda, Darfur, Ivory Coast, etc), America is perfectly capable of doing the slaughtering (hello Indians). Just ask Andrew Jackson.Report

  12. Jaybird says:

    Here’s my are my questions about Obama’s speech yesterday:

    It seems to me that he has effectively divorced himself from what happens next. He’s declared victory. Everything is now in the hands of “The Coalition” and America’s role is over.

    1. Am I wrong that this is what he tried to do?
    2. If I am not wrong on how this is what he tried to do, will it work?Report

  13. Zach says:

    Of course Iran and North Korea have excellent self defense strategies with the former having strong influence over militant opposition groups in basically every neighboring country and the latter having (possibly functional) nuclear weapons and massive amounts of (definitely functional) artillery aimed at civilians. Qadaffi’s not done much to support anyone but himself and gave up his nuclear power to win Western approval.

    It’s hard to come up with a coherent rationale for not trying to do the same thing in Zimbabwe or in other countries facing humanitarian crises in Africa. I think we’re mostly just afraid to invade poor countries; in many ways, we’re more comfortable engaging well-organized armies in countries with pockets of high population density. From a practical standpoint in Zimbabwe in particular, the country’s in a fragile internal compromise while recovering from a humanitarian and economic nightmare… to what extent would simply deposing Mugabe accomplish anything? Also, Mugabe is not on the verge of mass slaughter at the moment. There’s a difference between “Saddam gassed his people before so he’ll do it again” and “Qadaffi says he’s going to slaughter anyone supporting rebels this week.” Had Mugabe not allowed international aid during the cholera outbreak (he pushed back but ultimately did) that might be a more analogous situation.Report

  14. BlaiseP says:

    Attack of the Facile Contrarian Metacritics. Coming soon, to a theater near you.

    Andrew Sullivan, like the entry for Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, can be summed up as “mostly harmless” and he who attacks him has become a meta-metacritic. Perhaps we ought to consider support for recursion, always the best route to patrol a directory structure.

    America did intervene in Zimbabwe: lest we forget, Reagan had many complimentary things to say about that brute and backed him with arms.

    America goes to war because three planets align: opportunity, history and political consequence. We’ve always been late to the war party. It takes a great deal to provoke us but when we do Go Off, it’s usually for something petty, often stupid, because we hold grudges.

    Obama is return to a bloodless, ruthless pragmatism unseen since Eisenhower. Eisenhower took out Iran and Guatemala. I link to wiki for President Eisenhower’s foreign policy in lieu of much typing, but I’d like to tell you a little story from those times in an attempt to give you some insight into how Eisenhower did things.

    The French had been beaten in Indochina. Vietnam was divided between North and South. The Kennan Doctrine of Containment guided America in those days. Eisenhower sent a group of US Marine Corps advisors to South Vietnam with orders to size up the situation. They sent back a fascinating report.

    Since Julius Caesar in the 50s BCE, the Romans had battled the northern tribes. The Roman legions worked well enough on open ground but on the forest pathways, the Gauls had all the advantages. In response, the Romans built bridges over rivers, cleared roads and built fortifications, most of which remain in one form or another to this day.

    Four hundred years later, the Romans were still fighting for control of those forests. When it was just little paths, the Gauls would bushwhack the Romans, charging through the forests butt naked, painted with bright blue clay, carrying sharpened saplings, spearing a Roman, dropping the spear and running away. The Romans widened the roads in response. The Gauls took to shooting arrow. The Romans widened the roads again to arrow distance and began to garrison a line of forts along the Rhine and Danube. Maintaining control of the restive tribes of the North required hiring on local soldiery which would eventually lead to Alaric.

    Those US Marines told Eisenhower to stay the hell out of a major involvement in Southeast Asia unless he wanted to fight in Vietnam for four centuries. Even then, the outcome would be in doubt. Ike told Kennedy to stay on the sidelines and to a large extent Kennedy did, but the Americans did run bombers out of Tan Son Nhut and continued training the fledgling Vietnamese Air Force after the French left. Johnson escalated the war on the basis of a few industrial strength lies. I’m told LBJ was mystified as to why Kennedy saw anything worth defending but LBJ felt he ought to continue JFK’s policies. That old USMC report should be brought out of storage and read aloud to every incoming US president: don’t get involved in hot wars in territory you won’t occupy forever after.

    Obama is another Eisenhower. Ike made some big mistakes, God knows, he got the Suez Canal incident completely wrong. The coups Ike orchestrated would all backfire in time. But he understood the limits of American force projection and like Ike (and Bush the Wiser), Obama keeps a map of the entire world in his mind’s eye and therefore understands the need for coalition building. Wars aren’t won on the battlefields: they’re won in the hearts of men.

    Obama’s styleReport

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Valid only if my criticism of Sullivan had nothing to do with any possible criticism of the intervention itself.

      You’d have better luck on the other thread, where I was dissing his political style.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        … and here I was, thinking this essay had something to do with Moral Reasoning and the interrogation of Empire ere it reaches for its sword.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

          We seem to be talking past each other.

          If you take me to be criticizing Sullivan alone, then you are mistaken. He is an example, here, of a kind of reasoning. I find that reasoning false. It’s also a type of reasoning with — I’d argue — significant political consequences, ones that range far beyond metacriticism.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            Well sure, that’s my whole point: Sullivan is only a symptom, to quote Captain Beefheart, a Zig-Zag Wanderer. In short, Sullivan is a myopic clown, seemingly incapable of perceiving the Big Picture wherein America did stand by and watch slaughter, grimly concluding there were no good options for the USA beyond containment. Power varies as the inverse square of distance: not every good thing can be done, America must pick its battles.

            My point is this: to criticize Sullivan is only to give him credence he doesn’t deserve. If I beat him with the stick of history, it’s the only way I know to attack his facile conclusions.Report

            • tom van dyke in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Admirable Andy is in mid-U-turn: CYAing his initial opposition with an acknowledgement of BHO’s moral wonderfulness.

              Add in an unveiled slap at the right for questioning Obama’s belief in American exceptionalism, and his bona fides with the chattering class are once again in perfect order. Whether or not Libya works out, Andy smells of roses.

              Another Sullivan masterpiece in the sophistic arts. We are not worthy.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to tom van dyke says:

                Though he might be a Zig Zag Wanderer, at least Sullivan does not descend into that terminus of platitudes, the Barking Zealot, wherein all BHO does is Rong, whatever he does.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

      America goes to war because three planets align: opportunity, history and political consequence. We’ve always been late to the war party.

      I respectfully disagree:

      (Yeah, most of them aren’t called ‘wars’ – but neither is this one. And the list doesn’t count the Indian wars)Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Kolohe says:

        I’m not sure we disagree. Your definition of war is congruent with mine. Furthermore, to emphasize your position, I observe the spectre of nuclear war has attenuated modern conflicts to the point where the dandelions have evolved to bloom under that ghastly lawnmower.Report

  15. BSK says:

    What if he was speaking metaphorically? In the sense that, at the moment we stand by while a slaughter happens, we cease to be that which America holds most true and, in doing so, we cease to be America. Of course, that would require that what America holds to be most true about itself is that slaughter ought be prevented at all times and in all places. Which would be an odd stance to take, given that America was sort of founded upon numerous slaughters.

    …sigh… I guess it really WAS just a stupid, ass-wrong comment.Report

  16. trizzlor says:

    “America is simply incapable of watching a slaughter take place – anywhere in the world – and not [moving] to do what we can to prevent it.”

    The “what we can” is a pretty important qualifier here – suggesting that sometimes there is nothing we can do – and your argument conflates not having anything to do and not doing anything. Sullivan goes on to explain specific qualifiers that makes Libya different: “European and Arab support for preventing mass murder; UN permission; America’s “unique” capabilities; and an imminent massacre in Benghazi.” Note that only one of these is the massacre itself, while the rest are additional indicators that we can do something to prevent it.

    Is this the case for Zimbabwe or Burma or any other example you’ve listed? Not according to Sullivan’s calculus, so where’s the contradiction?Report