Recent events in Libya have once more raised the question of U.S. led international intervention, as a loose coalition of forces (and now NATO) has conducted a broad campaign of bombing strikes against Qaddafi's forces.
The Libyan unrest followed closely on the heels of instances anti-government protests in other countries in the region (Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia), though this was the first instance of outright armed conflict. Rebels were reported to be fighting in major Libyan cities, but were being beaten back by Quaddafi's loyal forces.
The decision to intervene with American military power, without consulting with, or obtaining authorization from, the Congress, follows a familiar pattern of abuse of this kind by the executive branch. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. These were wars of choice, begun surreptitiously, and then expanded progressively over time with shaky "resolutions," and defended as growing obligations and commitments of "honor" and purpose. Though the cases differ in significant ways, the arguments used to support them are always the same:
"We must DO something!'
"Honor demands that we not abandon our duty!"
"We must finish the job!"
But in every case, once a conflict has begun, we always find ourselves in a quagmire in which military, political and ethical choices become ambiguous. "Victory" becomes a mirage, continually receding, until, after long last, exhaustion (and bankruptcy) causes an abandonment of our original decision to deploy. Right now, "victory" in Afghanistan, "stability" in Iraq, have become illusions. The American people know it, and no amount of careful backtracking by toady generals or diplomatic apologists can make it sound right. Months--perhaps even weeks--after we leave those nations, they'll fall into chaos, and the outcomes will almost certainly not be to our liking.
And now the generals and diplomats are telling us we have a "moral obligation" to intervene in Libya. Quaddafi is a bad man, he's killing his opponents, and something must be done. But what? And what are our real aims?
In each instance of these "interventions" we seem to need to feel useful and justified to influence events and make a good outcome. But exactly what the limits of our intentions are, and how we propose bringing them about, remain vague and indeterminate. It's just this vagueness and lack of specificity which are the key to our failures.
Are we willing to "abide" by an outcome limited by our ability merely to prevent Qaddafi from bombing his people from the air? Is a "no-fly zone" all we want to set up? Or do we really want to see Qaddafi deposed? If that's the real aim, then "boots on the ground" will almost certainly be required eventually. Are we really willing to start a "third front" limited war in Libya? And if so, what does that willingness tell us about the progress of our foreign policy in the years to come? Are we obliged to intervene in every case in which a civil unrest (or "civil war") begins? We know how successful such ventures have been in the past. What is the evidence that were we to unseat Qaddafi, we would be able to "manage" the creation of a new government, and rehabilitate another entire country, as we have been doing for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan? How much, indeed, can we "afford" to do to help nations which fall into chaos? We've seen dictatorships come and dictatorships go, but the pattern which emerges from these conflicts is never certain, and seldom favorable to our interests. As with many things in life, it's often just as effective to do nothing, as it is to jump into a fight amongst strangers, whose loyalties and interests we don't share.
It is painful to watch a people rise up and be put down with vicious force--especially by someone as lawless as Qaddafi. But the alternative may no longer be a luxury we can afford.