Here is David A. Westbrook’s guest column for Informed Comment It is in many ways a critique of the position Juan Cole has taken, that a limited air intervention in Libya was necessary and desirable. Westbrook argues that the intervention is flawed policy because half-hearted. IC is open to alternative points of view and seeks to foster reasoned dialogue on public affairs. .
The Unbearable Lightness of Our Libyan War
Let me suggest a rule of thumb: we should not undertake the moral burden of killing when we are unwilling to undertake the existential risk of dying.
This rule of thumb raises substantial problems for our involvement in Libya. I freely admit that the US government had no good options with regard to Libya, which at least under prevailing conditions of uncertainty presented both the Scylla of another Rwanda, and the Charybdis of another Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
The White House made the call, and chose intervention, binding the nation. I do not intend to second guess the substance of that decision here; I am grateful the decision was not mine to make. Nor do I here wish to discuss whether, as a matter of US law, the executive adequately involved the legislature.
Even so granting the rightness and the legality of the administration’s actions, however, I think it deeply regrettable that we – and make no mistake, it is our war, now – have chosen to proceed in irresponsible fashion, that is, we have tried to deny we are going to war.
Such denial of our responsibility is both insufficiently morally serious and bad foreign policy.
Addressing the nation on Monday night, the President emphasized that command of the operation would be transferred to NATO, at times seeming to argue that this was not, or would no longer be, a US intervention. Our role, he said, “is limited.” And this weekend, US planes stopped flying missions, in hope that the rebels, with air cover from European air forces, would prevail. But NATO has always been dominated by the US. Our planes and personnel have flown a substantial portion of the missions, and our diplomatic and military infrastructure makes the enterprise possible. Simply put, the United States is fighting in Libya.
The fact that multilateral institutions, namely the United Nations, NATO, and the Arab League, have approved of at least some of our action does not alter the basic facts that US personnel, using US assets, are committed to foreign combat. Again, this is our war, and while having allies is important, and getting the good housekeeping seal of approval for such violence from international institutions is generally preferable to the unilateral action of prior administrations, we are hardly relieved of our responsibility.
Similarly, on March 28 the President publicly reassured the nation and the world that we would not deploy troops in Libya. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said there “will be no boots on the ground.” On the same day, however, we learned that the CIA has been operating in Libya for weeks, presumably wearing sneakers. While we may not have troops in Libya, if our engagements in Pakistan and Yemen are any guide, we have agents authorized to kill, eyes in the sky, and we will have warheads on foreheads (drone attacks) soon if we do not already. But, good heavens, no troops. Moreover, we are assured that CIA activity in Libya now is nothing like the CIA activity that served as precursor to invasion of Afghanistan. Obviously, completely different.
Instead, in Libya we have been maintaining a no-fly zone, not unlike the one we imposed on Iraq for years, until a ground invasion was deemed necessary after all. Exploiting our air superiority is tempting: perhaps we can do the right thing, in this case prevent “a massacre” that Gaddafi might well have ordered, without putting our own people at risk. But suppose the leader does not leave, and his forces regroup, and continue to advance? Suppose we declare a no-fly zone, and the massacre happens anyway, as happened in Bosnia? Suppose the insurgency fails, perhaps because there are many people who genuinely support the current regime? Or even suppose the insurgency succeeds, and the rebels are not what might be hoped? Suppose we are simply unsure of ourselves? In such circumstances, should we be killing people from the air, because it is not very expensive for us, and maybe things will sort themselves out for the best on the ground that we and our allies fly over? That is, if we are insufficiently committed to a civil order to put our own people at risk, are we morally serious enough to kill people, hoping that civil society miraculously sprouts after our rain of destruction?
Our lack of moral seriousness is deeply troubling, but the US tendency to deny responsibility for its actions is also bad foreign policy. While the multilateralism of the current administration is good manners and good politics, nobody thinks that NATO command makes this somehow an un-American fight. The fact that US force is exercised in Libya by CIA personnel does not make the US any less responsible in the minds of the Libyans, or for that matter, the rest of the world. And whether the no-fly zone succeeds or fails – or fails and we take further actions, at least resuming combat missions – the use of US planes to bomb Libyan positions is an act of war by the United States. Justified, maybe, but war for certain.
In minimizing or evading responsibility for wars that we undeniably wage, we appear to be disingenuous, thereby deepening suspicion about our motives. We lend credence to the tales told by our adversaries – that the CIA is fighting for our own selfish (oil) interests and against those of the Libyans, that the patriotic thing to do is to resist those who would destabilize Libya and reinstall a form of colonialism . . . we have been here before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the limited Middle Eastern support for our intervention in Libya seems to be melting away already. In fighting disingenuously, even covertly, we make ourselves easy to demonize, and easy to oppose, for years and years. Either our fight is worthy, and should be publicly espoused and prosecuted with vigor, or it is not worthy, and we should not engage.
Hence my rule of thumb: if we are serious, we should be willing to put troops on the ground and fight. In Libya, that probably would have meant defending some rather arbitrarily defined territory against the advance of Gaddafi’s troops, and then working for a negotiated solution on that basis, ideally with an appropriately drafted UN mandate. If we are not serious, however, we should not be killing people, hoping to tilt some balance in some direction that might be more advantageous for us. But hey, who knows?
David A. Westbrook is Floyd H. & Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar and Professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, State University of New York. His latest book is Deploying Ourselves: Islamist Violence and the Responsible Projection of US Force (Paradigm 2010).