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Libya as a Return to Limited War

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Greg Scoblete responded to my argument in support of a military intervention in Libya, which he aptly dubbed the "Because We Can" standard, by questioning just what it is we think we can do:

It's important to recognize that intervening in Libya and bombing Gaddafi's supporters is not the same thing as finding a politically acceptable end-state to the country's rebellion -- a fact that is being resolutely overlooked by most of the campaign's supporters. So, yes, there are very low barriers to entry in Libya, which makes it attractive where a campaign against Bahrain or Burma is much less so. But it's the barriers to exit that matter most.

In a parallel but in some ways related critique, Daniel Larison took me to task for reducing the scope of international responses to a humanitarian crisis to military interventions:

Interventionists have discovered that the rhetoric and legal loopholes provided by "responsibility to protect" are useful tools for starting new wars, which is why they conveniently forget that conflict prevention is part of any "responsibility to protect" position. . . . There is probably much more good that could be done by working to reduce political tensions [in at-risk countries] than can be achieved by escalating a civil war into an international conflict.

Both raise good points, although in fairness with regard to Larison's critique, I'm not an interventionist, and I was specifically addressing the issue of why a military intervention in Libya and not in Côte d'Ivoire. In previous posts, I have argued for political and non-military humanitarian approaches in Libya as well.

But this brings me to something I wanted to address yesterday and that Anne Applebaum nailed today, namely that President Barack Obama's relative silence leading up to this intervention not only lowers those barriers to exit that Scoblete, like so many others, is concerned about, but also widens the scope for politics in finding an end-state even now that military action has been engaged.

One of the reasons it usually takes a lengthy campaign of heightened rhetoric and demonization to sell a war to the American people is that, contrary to global stereotypes, Americans are far less bellicose than their global security role would suggest. Americans need to convince themselves their cause is just before committing themselves to war, which often entails painting the enemy as the incarnation of evil. This need for moral clarity, however, often makes America's commitment to war total, even when the war itself and the strategic interests involved are limited. After all, Americans don't negotiate with evil. They defeat it.

As a result, for Americans, war is no longer politics by other means. It is what happens when politics has failed. Rather than a Clausewitzian continuum along which a conflict can progress into hostilities and subsequently recede into political negotiation, there is a political rupture that blocks any backward movement to negotiation.

Now, Libya is not a perfect test case of this argument, since Moammar Gadhafi has been sufficiently demonized over the past 30 years that a prolonged media campaign was hardly needed to do the trick now. Furthermore, Obama has already declared that U.S. policy, if not its war aim, is for Gadhafi to no longer rule Libya.

Nevertheless, the absence of such a campaign of demonization now allows for a wider range of political approaches toward Gadhafi's regime than were imaginable in Iraq, to take just one example, where not only did Saddam Hussein need to go, but the military needed to be disbanded and the Baathist party purged from the political arena. Similar to its approach in Egypt, the U.S. can actively pursue a policy of impeachment, as opposed to regime change, in Libya, which opens the door to a political settlement of both the civil war as well as the U.S. and Western intervention in it -- even as that intervention continues. In other words, this signals America's return after a decade's hiatus to a Clausewitzian approach to war more applicable to the kinds of limited conflicts we're likely to face moving forward.

It is true, as many have argued, that there are a lot of "What then?" questions in Libya that don't yet seem to have clear answers -- although I suspect that both political and military policymakers have gamed out the contingencies to a degree that would probably surprise the critics. But it's also the case that the question of "What then?" shouldn't paralyze us to the possibilities of "What now?" The intervention in Libya is a calculated risk, but contrary to what many of those opposed to it maintain, it is a limited one that leaves a wide range of options -- including exit strategies -- at our disposal as the situation evolves.