Principled Action

The past week has featured a slightly surreal journalistic drumbeat for war in Libya, currently wracked by a civil war that the incumbent Gadhafi regime seems to be winning. New Republic literary editor slash foreign-policy commentator Leon Wieseltier deemed the Obama administration's failure to intervene "a disgrace," while the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative assembled a letter headlined by Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol urging America to go to war. As is typical of 21st-century would-be war-starters, however, they didn't actually use the word. Instead, they called on President Barack Obama "to urgently institute a no-fly zone over key Libyan cities and towns" and "explore the option of targeted strikes against regime assets." This, of course, amounts to a war: American military personnel would be entering Libyan airspace, attacking Libyan aircraft and ground-based air defenses, and dropping bombs ("targeted strikes") on people ("regime assets").

These publications, however, essentially take a "give war a chance" line on every foreign crisis. By contrast, I was taken aback to read in Monday's New York Times that Princeton professor and former State Department policy planning director Anne-Marie Slaughter was also on board for a war in Libya. She accused the president of "Fiddling While Libya Burns." Slaughter is a thoughtful strategist, and the spring 2010 Obama National Security Strategy, which her office oversaw, makes an eloquent case that American leadership should aim at the creation of a rule-based global order.

In that light, it was strange to see so little consideration given in her op-ed to how foreign military intervention in Libya would undermine that. Her first choice is to try to persuade the U.N. Security Council to authorize the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya. But she says that "if the Security Council fails to act, then we should recognize the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate government, as France has done, and work with the Arab League to give the council any assistance it requests." In other words, if the Security Council authorizes war, we go to war. And if they don't, we would go to war anyway.

This is not much of a rule-based order. The U.N. Charter, after all, specifically details the situation in which unilateral military action is allowed. Member sates can exercise "inherent right of individual or collective self-defense." In other words, if Libya attacks the United States, we can fight back. And if Libya attacks Italy, we can (and should) come to the assistance of our ally. The Clinton administration bent those rules in 1999 to halt genocidal slaughter in Kosovo, and it did some good. The Bush administration broke the rules in 2003 to invade Iraq, and it's been a disaster. Since then, people have sometimes put forward the idea (usually under the heading "responsibility to protect") that the rules should be modified to allow for intervention in severe humanitarian emergencies.

But though all violence is deplorable, what's happening in Libya clearly doesn't rise to that standard. The Libyan military is fighting against a real armed insurrection, not ethnically cleansing territories or slaughtering civilians in towns it controls. This raises the question: Under what principle would we be intervening? Seemingly, that great powers ought to intervene in foreign civil wars whenever they don't like one side.

It's crucial to note that we already tried to run the world on that basis, and it was called the Cold War. During that period, every localized political conflict in the developing world was transformed into a Superpower proxy fight, with one side armed by the Soviets and the other by the Americans. Sometimes, the U.S. backed the rebels (Nicaragua, Angola), and sometimes we backed the government (El Salvador, Congo), but the net result was hardly a boon to humanitarianism. On the contrary, it was a disaster wreaking death and destruction across the world. The move away from that dynamic -- to one in which foreign intervention in violent civil conflicts is discouraged -- has done much more to improve humanitarian conditions in the world than any intervention. The urge to act when faced with the visible trauma of civil war is understandable, but to throw that achievement away would be a huge mistake.

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