The arguments against military intervention struck me as surprisingly weak and almost entirely dependent on raising the spectre of Iraq and Afghanistan. ~Shadi Hamid

This is a good example of how advocates for either side are probably not the best judges of the strength of the arguments for and against a war. Hamid thought anti-war arguments were surprisingly weak, which I suppose he would. Obviously, he wasn’t persuaded by them, and instead he supported starting a war against Libya early on.

On the other side, I found pro-war arguments to be painfully poor. Wieseltier’s arguments, one of which Hamid refers to as a “moving must-read,” were probably the worst of all. The idea that the U.S. or any other government could end up going to war with the support of such poor arguments seemed almost impossible, and then I remembered that the arguments for invading Iraq and bombing Serbia were no better. I also remembered that policy debates often aren’t won by the people with the better ideas and arguments. One of the advantages that pro-war arguments have is that they don’t need to be very good. Even though the burden of proof is on the people who want to start a war, they are never actually required to prove their case. The bias in our government over the last twenty years has been in favor of foreign intervention of one sort or another, and governments often don’t go to war because there is a well-reasoned rationale, but instead they concoct some half-baked justification that fits their impulse to “do something.”

One would think that “raising the specter” of Iraq and Afghanistan when both wars are still ongoing would be sufficient to give intelligent people pause and force them to reconsider what they’re saying, but if it wasn’t the argument against a Libyan war was hardly limited to that. There were three main points that remain central to the case against the war as far as the U.S. is concerned: 1) the U.S. has no interests at stake in Libya, and no stake in the outcome of the Libyan civil war; 2) the Libyan government has done nothing in over a decade to the U.S. or any ally that justifies the use of force; 3) The Libyan civil war is an internal conflict that doesn’t concern outside states. As far as I can see, all of those are still true. The first point seems hard to contest unless one re-defines interests as broadly as possible. Pro-war arguments skip over the second point, because war supporters realize that they have no argument against this except to go back and revisit old grudges that were supposedly settled eight years ago.

Hamid continues:

I would love to hear how doing nothing in Libya was going to help U.S. security interests.

For a start, Libya would be draining U.S. military resources even more, distracting the U.S. from the far more significant and important (to the U.S.) political situation developing in the Gulf, and potentially creating blowback against the U.S. and allied governments involved in the intervention. If we’re talking about actual U.S. and allied security interests, rather than nebulous and elusive “credibility,” it is clear that doing nothing, or at least not taking military action (which isn’t the same as doing nothing) would have served those interests. If military action in Libya does not end with Gaddafi’s overthrow, what is to stop him from returning “to supporting terrorism and wreaking havoc in the region”? His recent threats to target civilian traffic in the Mediterranean may be mostly bluster, but how better to ensure that Libya will be “wreaking havoc” in the region than by turning an internal conflict into an international war?

If we don’t want havoc in the region, why should the U.S. be helping to create more havoc? Doesn’t Hamid see how heavily his argument relies on currently non-existent threats? Hamid’s strategic argument raises the specter of Libyan WMD programs and the export of terrorism sometime in the future. Right now, Gaddafi may or may not respond to renewed pariah status by pursuing these things. Once Gaddafi is targeted with outside military action, he has every incentive to pursue both. The argument for war in Libya says that we should ignore the significant threats that intervention might help create for the sake of settling an internal conflict.

It isn’t all that ironic that the Arab League and GCC have called for action in Libya. Many of their governments hate Gaddafi and want to use this as an excuse to act against him, and perhaps they see it as a way to demonstrate solidarity with protesters, provided that they are far away and have nothing to do with their countries. It’s a way to keep the world’s attention on Libya, and to distract U.S. attention from what the GCC is doing in Bahrain. It is possible that any GCC member participation in enforcing UNSCR 1973 will come at the price of continuing to tolerate the GCC military presence in Bahrain, which does rather more damage to America’s reputation because it involves active complicity in what allied governments are doing. If we’re going to talk about strategic interests, perhaps it was time that we focused on countries where the U.S. actually has some. Libya isn’t one of them.