The Backwards Logic of Intervention
March 18, 2011

UN Security Council Chamber in New York.

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I was just 11 years old when the United States declared war on Afghanistan and thirteen when we invaded Iraq. Those two wars played an instrumental role and shaping my political sensibility. Needless to say, I can’t separate my experience growing up with those two wars from my intuitions regarding the UN Security Council’s vote to intervene in Libya. Maybe coming of age in a nation at war left me with anxieties and prejudices that are now hopelessly muddling those intuitions. I hope that’s the case, and I hope I’m dead wrong on Libya. Because right now, I don’t see a good outcome to military intervention.

I’d probably feel differently if the vote had come a couple weeks earlier, when the rebels still had the upper hand. Not that I supported active military intervention even then, but I definitely thought the United States and the international community should have been playing a more active role in shaping events on the ground. Checking off a few items on this list would have been nice. Anything to keep the momentum on the side of the anti-Gaddafi forces while keeping the odds of yet another American military entanglement to an absolute minimum.

But we missed our window. By all accounts, the winds have shifted back in Gaddafi’s favor, and I suspect that means tilting things back in the opposition’s favor will require a significantly larger commitment than I originally envisioned. A no-fly zone — that is, a “humanitarian half measure” — won’t cut it. That’s why the resolution includes some ominously open-ended language, allowing for a much deeper level of engagement.

The one option the resolution does preclude, fortunately, is that of a “foreign occupation force.” That term might mean something more specific in international law than is commonly understood — I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that we have little idea what shape a post-Gaddafi Libyan government would take, and a whole lot of disparate parties that would like to mold such a government to their benefit. Even if we don’t end up as occupiers (which I still don’t think is a sure thing), this sounds like a recipe for long-term military entanglement of some kind or another.

In other words, I don’t think we know what we’re getting ourselves into. And for that reason, we can’t possibly have a sound strategy for eventually getting out. Which is a tremendous bummer for a lot of reasons, the least of which is this: I honestly didn’t expect this sort of stuff to happen under the leadership President Obama. I thought our days of military adventurism were, well, not over exactly, but dwindling. Sure, I didn’t have any illusions about withdrawing from Afghanistan during the Obama presidency, but it never occurred to me that we might risk yet another unforced quagmire. I figured that, at the very least, Iraq and Afghanistan had left Democratic policy makers with a hefty dose of martial humility.

Turns out no such luck. I failed to take into account a few big factors. Such as the fact that institutional memory is short and bureaucratic inertia is huge. Such as the network of incentives that allow policy makers, pundits, corporate leaders and military brass to net significant short-term benefit from a push for war. I don’t mean to be cynical: I do think the most strident advocates of this military intervention firmly believe that it is just and good. And hell, I can’t say with 100% certainty that they’re wrong. But I think they probably are, and I’m dismayed to watch this play out anyway.

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