Meta-Commentary

Libya

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on March 22, 2011

John Judis at TNR has the best defense of the Libya intervention, arguing that it flows from basic concerns about regional stability and human costs of Qaddafi’s offensive. However, by focusing on the outcomes of inaction, he handily elides one major point of criticism: the ends don’t match the means. In other words, if you care about the issues he highlights, you shouldn’t be fighting an air war.

In Bombing to Win, Robert Pape exposes the illogic of strategic bombing. The fundamental premise of strategic bombing is that a bombing campaign undercuts both the state’s warfighting capabilities and the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the populace. That’s a nice theory, but reality isn’t quite that neat. The two aims are contradictory. By taking out infrastructure—and, inevitably, homes—strategic bombing creates a mass of homeless and unemployed people who are dependent on the state to fulfill basic needs. It’s a brave man who will forgo his meal ticket and shelter to stand up to his government to the ultimate benefit of the people who bombed his house or workplace.

The mismatch between our methods and our goals is one of the most troubling aspects of the war, and it undercuts John’s argument. A better defense, I think, is that the intervention is fundamentally opportunistic. While the methodical slaughter of Libyan civilians by Gaddafi isn’t the biggest threat to American interests, it’s also not hard to interdict conventional forces with air power in a country as flat and barren as Libya. Moreover, a multilateral intervention on behalf of an uprising that has been (inaccurately) lumped into the “Arab Spring” is a useful gesture to emerging civil society groups in the region. Qaddafi—a near-universally loathed despot—is a target of opportunity and nothing more.

Understood as multilateral opportunism, the case for intervention is clearer. At the cost of expended ordnance, we can forestall a humanitarian catastrophe, undermine an old foe, and pass the costs of post-combat planning on to allies who have more vital interests in the region. Apparently, the Obama administration is willing to make that gamble.

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