Shadow Government

The Libya debate needs to be a bit more rigorous

Reasonable people can disagree about what military action, if any, the United States should take on Libya. But if we are going to have a reasonable debate, we will need to avoid some sloppy thinking. Here are three especially sloppy notions that are beginning to appear in the national conversation:

Whatever we do, it mustn't be "unilateral" like the Iraq invasion. The Iraq invasion may or may not have been wise, but it sure wasn't "unilateral." As Pete Wehner reminds us, this "unilateral" action involved contributions from "the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and 17 other countries that committed troops to Iraq." If the Obama administration ever does find itself intervening militarily in Libya, it will be hard-pressed to match the multilateralism of that "unilateral" action.

Defenders of military action must answer tough questions but defenders of military inaction don't need to. Doves are right to raise tough questions about any proposed military action in the Libyan crisis. But many similar tough questions need to be asked about the policy of inaction. The Obama administration has already taken sides in the Libyan civil war, is it willing to see "its side" lose? Is there a scale of humanitarian disaster that is intolerable and, if so, what is it and what will the United States do if that point is reached? With Obama's own top intelligence officer predicting that Qaddafi will prevail absent military efforts to shore up the rebels, what is the plan to deal with post-rebellion Libya? 

Military action makes us morally responsible but military inaction allows us to avoid moral responsibility. Many defenders of military inaction reach their point of view by way of a skewed cost-benefit calculation that assumes the worst about military action and assumes the best about inaction. Every untoward development that happens or is speculated to happen after military intervention is blamed on the intervener, but every untoward development that happens in the absence of military intervention is left out of the calculus entirely. Thus ideologues who bemoan American "militarism" count up all of the casualties in wars the U.S. intervened in and utterly disregard all of the casualties in conflicts the U.S. let fester without acting.

Let me be clear, more rigorous analysis might still yield a conclusion against U.S. intervening militarily. There has been rigorous debate right here amongst the Shadow Government contributors (see here vs. here). In particular, I find Kori Schake's warning about President Obama's obvious reluctance to intervene to be a wise cautionary. As Rumsfeld might put it, one goes to war with the commander-in-chief one has and so doubt about Obama's resolve on this matter is a reasonable factor to weigh in the balance. But if we do opt for military inaction, it had better be the result of a tough-minded assessment of the costs and benefits of all of the alternatives and not simply the sloppy embrace of inertia.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

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