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The Appalling Irrationality of Libyan Intervention Arguments

The doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” has several requirements before international intervention becomes appropriate on R2P’s terms. This is supposed to guard against the abuse of humanitarian intervention for anything other than genuine humanitarian disasters. As we have seen over the last few weeks, humanitarian interventionists are nonetheless happy to invoke the authority to “protect” without demonstrating that the conflict in question qualifies. The criteria for intervention are similar in many respects to the requirements of just war theory: just cause, right intention, final resort, legitimate authority, proportional means, and reasonable prospect. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that intervening in Libya meets the first two criteria. What about the other four?

Intervening in Libya certainly isn’t a final resort at this point. Options other than military action have barely been considered, much less exhausted. The only legitimate authority that the “responsibility to protect” doctrine acknowledges is the Security Council, so that will certainly be lacking. Establishing a no-fly zone might be a proportionate response, but it doesn’t have a reasonable prospect of success, unless success is defined as the effective enforcement of a no-fly zone.

James Traub dispenses with all of this, and says that the U.S. should entangle itself in Libya’s civil war anyway:

So neither the strategic nor the humanitarian case for action is overwhelming. And to be effective, that action would require a serious commitment of military force. So again, why do it?

Because it would be the right thing, and because it would be good for the United States. It would be the right thing because U.S. and NATO force could stop a ruthless tyrant from killing his own people and bring his monstrous rule to an end. Western intervention in the Congo wouldn’t have solved the problem, while military action in Darfur might well have provoked a massive backlash in the Islamic world. But Libya is a case where force could work and where it will be deployed only after non-coercive methods have proved unavailing, as the doctrine of the responsibility to protect requires. And it would redound to America’s benefit because the United States would be placing its military power at the disposal of the Arab world in order to liberate Arab peoples.

I have to congratulate Traub on his demonstration of the complete bankruptcy and irrationality of the pro-war argument. If there is neither a humanitarian nor strategic case to be made for starting a war against Libya, and there isn’t, there is no case for U.S. involvement at all. Traub isn’t just calling for a no-fly zone. He wants an air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces:

There is no point in establishing a no-fly zone unless both the West and Arab leaders are prepared to take the next step. This would be the kind of airstrikes that finally brought Slobodan Milosevic to heel in 1995: strikes against troop concentrations, bunkers, air-defense systems, and the like. This would be an outright act of war, though one that did not put foreign boots on Libyan soil.

A no-fly zone would be an “outright act of war,” too, but why worry? Once again, Traub does us a service of pointing out where intervention in Libya must lead. Western governments aren’t prepared to take the next step. Many of them don’t even want to take the first step. I doubt there is much enthusiasm among Arab leaders for what Traub is proposing. The Arab League is apparently fine with a no-fly zone, perhaps because some of the governments in the League don’t fully appreciate what is involved in enforcing it, but will it support an ongoing air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Traub’s argument is a good example of the unthinking, reflexive responses of interventionists in this debate. There is no particularly good or well-reasoned argument for what they want. It’s just the right thing to do. It could all go horribly wrong, and there’s no reason for America to be involved, but it makes us feel better, so let’s do it. The quality of debate in this country over a matter as grave and important as warfare is just appalling.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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