War Is A Worry, Not Just the Liberal Ones

A look at Ross Douthat's take on Libya

Two heavy hitters from the left and right are struggling with the weekend’s (aerial) incursion into Libya. Both the Times’s conservative columnist Ross Douthat and progressive Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall are opining on why the whole thing has them feeling queasy. Douthat and Marshall touch on some of the same points of concern: a third incursion into the Muslim world, the question of why Libya and not Yemen and Bahrain, a fear of mission creep, and the ambiguity of what exactly the primary mission is (no-fly zone or regime change?) But only one of them gets into an unknowing hypocritical twist as they do.

It’s not Marshall.

In a column published last night, Marshall channels his “inner foreign policy Realist” to argue that he can’t see the justification for intervening in Libya. The best outcome, as he sees it, is “maintaining a safe haven for the people who were about to be crushed because they’d participated in a failed rebellion,” and he contends that, regarding comparisons between this intervention and past situations in the Balkans and Rwanda, there is little by way of direct similarities: “a failed rebellion isn’t genocide. It’s not.”

Marshall is sympathetic to the arguments against his own—if you are open to intervention at all, should it matter whether people are dying fighting back against an oppressive regime or are dying in an organized genocide?—but ultimately concludes:

So let’s review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

Marshall makes his arguments with both eyes focused squarely on Libya. Douthat, on the other hand, opts for a more expansive take and decides that the issue is “the liberal way of war,” which the Obama administration is giving us a “clinic” in with Libya. Douthat says that while weeks of delay might have had us thinking that the president was doing all he could to stay out of Libya’s domestic troubles, he was actually just ensuring “we were doing it in the most multilateral, least cowboyish fashion imaginable.”

“In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention,” Douthat writes. “It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.”

The model is Clinton’s, and Douthat allows that it has some strengths: sustained alliances, reduced risk of anti-Americanism, and a spreading of the military burden. These are, of course, overwhelmed by the weaknesses.

But there are major problems with this approach to war as well. Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.

Douthat’s first strike against his “liberal war” target is pretty bang-on. History backs him up. The problem, though, is in framing his argument as an attack against “liberal war.” When you do that, the alternative jumps instantly to mind: Conservative war? Unilateral war? And with the ideologically opposed approaches sparring in your head as you read, Douthat’s argument is undercut.

Liberal “committee” war is fought “at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence”? Note that the longest war in this nation’s history is still being prosecuted in Afghanistan, and while not a solo incursion, it has, since its beginning, never been considered a liberal war in Douthat’s framing. And the war in Iraq, the second longest war in U.S. history, was an affront to the consensus-building measures the president took prior to the weekend’s airstrikes against Libya, which continues at a presumably slower-than-glacial pace. For tactical incompetence in each, try “Iraq” AND “Afghanistan” in Lexis, 2003 to present.

Liberal wars’ “connection to the national interest is often tangential at best?” Again, the “coalition of the willing’s”’ move into Iraq springs to mind. As history has born out, the argument for our national interest there turned on a lie. And tangential might prove the more logical impetus than untruth.

Douthat then writes, “The NATO bombing campaign helped topple Slobodan Milosevic and midwifed an independent Kosovo. But by raising the stakes for both Milosevic and his Kosovo Liberation Army foes, the West’s intervention probably inspired more bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in the short term, exacerbating the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to forestall.”

That assessment is probably correct. But again, with the backing track of non-liberal wars playing as you read, it’s hard not to counter with Iraq. Was the humanitarian crisis in that country eased or exacerbated by the ongoing war there?

None of this is to say that Barack Obama has it right in Libya. Or that the French or British do. Or that things will turn out rosier in this latest “liberal war” than they have with the two started under president Bush. As Douthat pretty comprehensively points out, historical precedent should have us all nervous.

The point is that war in general rarely turns out well—liberal, conservative, unilateral, or otherwise. By targeting this notion of a “very liberal intervention”—perhaps fulfilling his need to be the Times’s conservative voice at all junctures—Douthat distracts us from this larger point.

We all have reason to worry when bombs are falling, regardless of the ideologies that might be dropping them. And we have particular concerns in Libya, where the mission, our interests, and our chances for whatever would constitute success are cloudy. If you’re looking for some direction on how you should be worrying about Libya, try Marshall before Douthat.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , ,