In my last posting, I agreed with my colleagues that Libya did not involve vital interests, but I said that it did involve humanitarian interests and they can be important. In general, I agree with my friends that humanitarian intervention is a dangerous process, fraught with unintended consequences and costs. Thus the presumption should be against such interventions. After all, John Quincy Adams provided sound advice when he said we should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. There are too many of them, and we cannot control or police the world.
Why then do I support the Obama Administration actions on Libya?
- Qaddafi posed a clear and present danger of slaughter of citizens in Benghazi – witness his threat of “merciless” acts. We have a responsibility to protect such citizens when we can under the UN’s R2P resolution that we agreed to in 2005.
- The American action is not unilateral and that reduces both its costs and burdens. Obama was right to let the French and British take the lead.
- Legitimacy is crucial. The costs to our soft power are too high when it is absent. In this case, the resolutions by the Arab League and the UN Security Council were key. That makes this case more like Bush 41 in Iraq rather than Bush 43 in Iraq. Ironically, in this case, even Al Jazeera – which is widely watched in the Arab world – is on our side.
- Obama has been careful to specify limited objectives and to suggest a limited duration.
With that said, however, I still worry about the dangers of mission creep and exit. What if there is a stalemate and prolonged civil war? It is important for Obama to make clear that in addition to not putting American boots on the ground in another Muslim country, we will not be involved in a prolonged bombing campaign such as the no fly zones in Iraq. Libyans will have the responsibility of removing their tyrant. John Stuart Mill wrestled with these questions a century and a half ago, and came to a similar conclusion. Liberal interventionism is not new, and when we indulge in it, we must find ways to keep it limited.