Nicholas D Kristoff of the New York Times joins the chorus of well-meaning idiots that believes it the problem of the United States whenever oppressive dictators set about to show how oppressive and how dictatorial they can be. Like so many others in the intelligentsia, he’s got no street cred in evaluating the efficacy of military force in quelling dictatorial impulses because he’s never actually been involved in anything of the sort. So, he calls up a fire-brand ex-general to lend gravitas and justification for what his emotional impulses are telling him must be done:
I called General McPeak to get his take on a no-fly zone, and he was deliciously blunt:
“I can’t imagine an easier military problem,” he said. “If we can’t impose a no-fly zone over a not even third-rate military power like Libya, then we ought to take a hell of a lot of our military budget and spend it on something usable.”
He continued: “Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective.”
General McPeak added that there would be no need to maintain 24/7 coverage over Libya. As long as the Libyan Air Force knew that there was some risk of interception, its pilots would be much less motivated to drop bombs and more inclined to defect.
The question is not whether we can impose a no-fly zone over Libya. Of course we can. The question is whether we should get involved militarily. It is a question with both practical and moral implications.
As a practical matter, do we even know who the “friendlies” are, i.e., are they really friendly? Do we define “friendly” in a realpolitik sort of way as anyone that is the enemy of our enemy? If so, is Gadhafi an enemy or a friend? How about the rebels opposing him? What happens if we aid in the overthrow of Gadhafi, only to later learn that a) this supposed revolution for freedom is really only, like all others, a fight for power, and b) that it was never the “revolutionaries” intent to allow freedom and democracy to flourish? And even if democracy were allowed to flourish in Libya, would that enhance or impair the interests of the US so far as Libya is concerned? Considering that democracy can be as oppressive as any other form of government, would it even enhance the lot of the average Libyan? What, exactly, in terms of enhancing the long-term viability and security of the US would we accomplish by getting involved militarily in determining the outcome of the conflict? Could we limit our involvement to establishing a no-fly zone? Given that Libya is much closer to Europe and the conflict is likely to have a much greater impact there than in the US, should the US leave the problem, for once since the end of World War Two, to the Europeans to solve?
Setting aside the practical considerations, the moral questions are even more compelling. When is using force, i.e., killing and destroying things justified? Is it anytime our interests are threatened, or is it only when we must defend American lives and property? Is it immoral to stand by and allow Libyans to kill each other? Is imposing our will on Libya morally justifiable as a proper use of American blood and treasure, even when Libya is half a world away and no matter what happens there, is no existential threat to the United States? Should military involvement require a vote of Congress, or should the President be allowed to unilaterally commit forces to the struggle? Would we care about what happened in Libya if Libya didn’t have Africa’s largest known reserves of oil? If so, then why we haven’t cared what happened in Rwanda or Yemen or Somalia?
According to the Wall Street Journal, Gadhafi’s government suffered a salvo of diplomatic insults today. France formally recognized a faction of the rebel groups fighting Gadhafi as Libya’s government, the US promised diplomatic talks with the rebels, and the European Union imposed sanctions. In the meantime, Gadhafi pressed on in his attacks on the rebel forces, pushing them from the oil port of Ras Lanuf.
The most important roles a President assumes upon election are those of chief diplomat and commander-in-chief of diplomacy- by-other-means, i.e., of the military. On the world stage, the chief executive at home becomes but a representative abroad, charged with representing the collective interests of three hundred million Americans before all the rest of the world. Obama has stumbled of late, and not only with Libya. He failed to wrap his head around events in Egypt such that the US didn’t look like a frozen deer in the headlights when the Egyptians overthrew Mubarak. He then was forced to recant a promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison by the exigencies of the situation, not unlike the same circumstances that faced his predecessor. Then he proclaimed that Gadhafi should relinquish power before the issue was settled on the ground, which will leave the US looking profoundly impotent if Gadhafi crushes the rebellion and we refuse to get involved to see otherwise. In two of these missteps–the Guantanamo and Libya pronouncements–Obama revealed an arrogance that may ultimately unravel him. Had he humbly kept his mouth shut until his objectives were achieved, he would certainly have done a better job as sole representative of US interests across the globe. In Libya, he has now painted himself (and thereby the US) into a corner. The world isn’t big enough for a Gadhafi-led Libya and an American President that proclaims he should be gone. If Obama is to retain any credibility with the Arab street, or really any street, he will be forced to turn to the military to get rid of Gadhafi if it proves beyond the capabilities of the rebels to do so.
Fortunately for Obama, as a practical (i.e., extra-constitutional) matter the President has great leeway in deciding how and when to deploy military forces. With an all-volunteer, i.e., mercenary, military he hasn’t any immediate reason to be concerned over the political fall-out deployment might incur. Libyan no-fly zones will hardly require the reinstatement of the draft, so the general public will be mostly unaffected by his decision. Which is unfortunate. If we are deploying military forces to enforce our parochial views on morality (revolutions against dictators are always good), then we should ask ourselves the one moral question that gets at the crux of the matter: Would I be willing to kill a Libyan that’s not trying to kill me? Asking another to do what is morally reprehensible is worse than if the act were done by the one seeking it. Two are morally culpable when one does an immoral act at the bidding of another.