Now we have a chance to support a real new beginning in the Muslim world — a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism. It’s hard to imagine something more in our strategic interest. ~Anne-Marie Slaughter
Slaughter gets around the most obvious objection to a Libyan war by simply asserting the contrary. Essentially, in order to have a “new beginning in the Muslim world” that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups, the U.S. must resort to military action in another Muslim country for the sake of regime change. As we should know by now, the Iraq war actually led to massive increases in terrorist activities and major attacks on Western targets. We don’t know what sort of blowback the U.S. and our allies could expect from intervening in Libya, but there would likely be some.
Of all the popular causes in the region that the U.S. might back, the Libyan rebels’ cause is one that we understand the least, and based on some of what we do understand it is debatable whether we should want to provide military support to them. Rather silly people thought that aiding Muslims in Kosovo would earn the U.S. gratitude from Muslims around the world, as if our other policies weren’t still in place. People who claim that there can be a “new beginning” if the U.S. gets behind enough popular uprisings are overlooking all those policies that still generate resentment and hostility, and they are making the same mistake of thinking that an intervention on behalf of a Muslim population in one country will win sympathy elsewhere.
There are a few reasons why it is important to distinguish between internal conflicts where the U.S. has interests and where it has nothing at stake. The U.S. doesn’t have infinite resources, and can’t afford every new commitment overseas that it could conceivably make, so it is important to avoid entirely unnecessary commitments. Libya is a fairly easy call: the U.S. has nothing at stake. Advocates of a war against Libya are eager to make the outcome of the war into a major turning point for the region, but this is because the argument for involvement in Libya is so weak.
Slaughter relies heavily on the claim that the U.S. can’t allow Gaddafi to set a precedent that protesters can be suppressed with massive violence:
But the choice is between uncertainty and the certainty that if Colonel Qaddafi wins, regimes across the region will conclude that force is the way to answer protests.
Obviously, governments everywhere understand that force can be used effectively to quash protests. The Tunisian government’s security forces tried and failed, because the protesters did not disperse and the military refused to assist in the crackdown. The Egyptian regime used its police in the same way, but once again the military did not want to be directly implicated in violence against protesters. Early on, Gaddafi invoked Tiananmen Square as a model, and this will always be a model for authoritarian governments in the future. Whether Gaddafi wins or loses, the Tiananmen model will always be there for other governments to imitate. Jumping into a Libyan war for the sake of deterring other authoritarian governments won’t work, because the U.S. isn’t going to commit itself to a global policy of taking military action in support of rebel movements everywhere.
Jackson Diehl promotes the same idea:
“The Egyptian crowds watched and learned from the Tunisian crowds,” Will observed last week. “But the Libyan government watched and learned from the fate of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. It has decided to fight. Would not U.S. intervention in Libya encourage other restive peoples to expect U.S. military assistance?”
The answer is: Perhaps it would. And: If a powerful opposition movement appeared in Syria, and asked the West for weapons or air support to finish off the Assad regime, would that be a disaster?
For the people of Syria, it might be depending on what happens, but Diehl seems to miss Will’s point that the U.S. doesn’t need any additional military commitments. Intervening in Libya sets a precedent of supporting rebellions against other governments that will pull the U.S. into many more military engagements in the future. Far worse than just calling for war against Libya, Diehl and Slaughter and others making this argument seem to want the U.S. to be in the business of facilitating regime change-by-rebels whenever possible. At best, this commits the U.S. to start wars whenever there is a sizeable uprising against a vilified regime, and at worst it badly over-promises what the U.S. will be able to do, which will end up making the U.S. partly responsible for encouraging uprisings that the U.S. will not be able to support for one reason or another.