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.