Arguing the Morality of the Libyan Intervention

A moral responsibility to protect civilians exists whether or not we choose act in its service; but such a responsibility doesn't exist in a vacuum, nor is it of infinite weight.
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It is bewildering that those who deny we are bound by any moral responsibility to intervene in Libya simultaneously argue that once we grant the desperate calls of the bloodied and besieged, we thereby morally commit ourselves to an endless, all-out war.

Hours before the U.N. Security Council would vote on Resolution 1973, a morning on which Benghazi awaited its inevitable fall, Andrew Sullivan asked "if the UN Resolution passes... do we not have a moral obligation to support [the rebels] in an open-ended civil war?... we do know that if we break it, we own it, do we not?"

But the consequence is one that simply does not follow. The chaos in the Maghreb is not, as they say, a case of "you break it, you own it." Though critics habitually raise the specter of Iraq, to which that cliché is more aptly applied, this relative difference in culpability for the Libyan crisis is salient. We did not "break" Libya, and none but a tyrant did. If this argument is to be applied here, it should be reworded "you [try to] fix it, you own it," which to anyone should seem the most absurd of rules.

A moral responsibility to protect civilians exists whether or not we choose act in its service; but such a responsibility doesn't exist in a vacuum, nor is it of infinite weight. If there comes a time when NATO countries begin to suffer in such a way as to undermine their responsibilities at home, they would not then be morally bound to continue the operation unreasonably or without end. Isn't it better to be able to say "Libya, when you asked for help, we tried to help you," than it is to apologize, mealy-mouthed and blushingly, that we the world's rich and liberal democracies could not afford the risk of trying?

Americans are justifiably war-tired, but we should not let the predictable ignorances of nonequivalency between Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan so tunnel our vision that we balk at the mention of intervention, even when obliged, so long as it involves a Muslim country. Of the arguments critical toward the operation in Libya, those styled by exasperation at the very mention of military action in another "Muslim" land are guilty of a sort of indiscrimination. These also taste somewhat of the Bin Ladenist claim that countries occupying certain portions of this planet are immunized from foreign intervention by an ancient book.

Thankfully, the opinions of Middle Eastern citizenries are passionately against Gaddafi. That a vital portion of the support for action came from a two-faced body comprised almost entirely of despotic regimes is irrelevant. The unprecedented support from the Arab League gave a measure of political cover to the voting nations of the U.N.S.C. (We should, however, pause to consider why such is even deemed necessary when debating whether to attempt the salvation of an Arab populace under attack. When a family owns and disposes of its citizens less humanely than a farmer culls diseased livestock, coming to that public's requested aid is something which should not require "cover.")

Quickly out-populating the others, however, is the consistency argument. This is the wet noodle critics repeatedly throw up in hopes that it will stick, but it's tired and overcooked and I wish they would consign it to the dog bowl. This most frequent criticism asserts that if we intervene to prevent the massacre of democrats in one case, we must therefore intervene in all cases where liberalizing forces are suppressed or murdered. But consistency, so defined, is a foreign policy fallacy.

The philosophical dictum "ought implies can" is virtually elevated to the state of a law, and a non-pedantic application of it in response to the cries for "consistency" is clarifying. Surely if an action cannot be taken, a nation cannot be morally obliged to take it. Why should we not, in the spirit of consistency, take military action in iron-fisted Saudi Arabia (or North Korea, for that matter) where dissidents suffer so morbidly? The answer is simple: because we cannot. To do so would be suicidal.

If the question asked is "why not Bahrain," seemingly small and powerless enough on its own, it is answered when, on second thought, the kingdom is recognized as the Saudi protectorate it is today. Military intervention in Yemen, where Al-Qaeda and its analogues have well-established terror networks, would have been, likewise, unwise. The one small and totally inadequate consolation is that Yemeni civilians are not currently being airbombed by their own military.

Oddly, many who make the consistency argument think themselves to have reinforced it with the question "why not Darfur?" when in fact many of these same critics (and incidentally, myself) believed that inaction to be a regretful scar on our collective conscience. "Why not Darfur," then, is exactly right.

In fact, in its service, critics can bring themselves to some fascinatingly bizarre analogies when dispatching the "why Libya" argument. Consider the following, from Sullivan:

"If we are prepared to do this in Libya, why not in Congo, where the casualties and brutality have been immensely greater?"

But exactly who, or what movement, would Sullivan put forth as a candidate for Western military support in the septo-national mess that is Congo? Both sides use rape as a weapon, and the rebels fancy that eating the native Pygmies will supplement their strength and courage, and so do. How would a military air campaign be conducted through the obstruction of a rainforest canopy and at which targets should such an operation be aimed? Impossibly and "not enough information to say" are the answers, and my guess is that Sullivan would agree with both. Therefore, to ask "why not Congo" in relation to Libya is to advance nothing more than a fallacy of indiscrimination. The definity of the targets in the Libyan case, while imperfect, is in blinding contrast with the indefinity of targets in others.

It is important to consider the frameworks under which we discuss the case for and against action. In doing so it becomes clear that of the better arguments against intervention, most fall primarily under a realpolitikal calculus rather than under a moral one. Understandably, many legitimate criticisms hinge on affordability or diplomatic costs, which are obvious material implications of intervention to consider, but are insufficient when operating at the exclusion of primarily moral concerns. If we agree that an ethical responsibility to protect civilians is valid, then a discussion remains to be had regarding the lengths to which such a responsibility extends. I would argue that the Libyan case is, shall we say, covered.

Of course, the morality of military action can never be totally separated from strategic and monetary concerns; military efforts overseas, just though they may be, can come at high cost. But, so far, the arguments against aiding the Libyan rebels have been heavily weighted to the material side of the ledger. We owe ourselves and others more than that. There is something deeply wrong with a critique of military action in which the conspicuous omission common to the criticisms of both left and right is one of moral justice.

It has often been repeated that since our and our allies' vital interests in Libya are few-to-none, we have no justification for involvement. But should our policy therefore be to protect civilians from slaughter in only those cases where the U.S. has material or strategic interests? No, abiding such base conservatism is the very habit that stained us with the precedents of Rwanda and Sudan.

It is hard to know what the man who imagined himself the future king of an United Africa and who, apparently without irony, wanted the union's currency called the "Afro," has in his mind (other than probably circus music); but while he shops the living room for material from which to misconceive his next sorcerer's gown, Gaddafi is simultaneously orchestrating the poisoning of wells, the rape of children, and the infiltration of plain-clothed, fratricidal snipers into "his" cities.

We should take some pride in our decision to help Libyans put an end to this twisted circus, and we should remember that whereas without help the revolution was foredoomed, the intervention was, and still is, not.

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