Is This War Preemptive? Is Libya Sovereign? Do Words Mean Things?

I think this is a fantastic assessment of President Obama’s basis of preemption in Libya.  It calls everyone out on the carpet and ends with this:

And for those Democrats who are either cheering on or grimly supporting the president’s actions…there’s a reason why the biggest fans of last night’s speech were hawks like William Kristol: If you didn’t like Iraq, you really won’t like Iran. And when that day comes, please don’t debase yourselves by crying crocodile tears over the Constitution, or pretending for even one second you are anti-war.

My only real point of contention with writer Matt Welch comes from this graph, in which he makes an important mistake:

Set aside the administration’s ever-elastic definition of “interests,” and instead grok this: The Democratic foreign policy best and brightest have admittedly adopted as their causus belli for dropping bombs on a sovereign country the same test that former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used for pornography: They know it when they see it. As for the rest of us taxpaying, war-weary plebes, we’ll receive an “update” from the president now and then to let us know where his own eyes have taken him next.

I agree that the president’s definition of “interests” is ever-elastic. I like that Welch used the word grok. I admire the Stewart analogy, although for some reason I thought O.W.Holmes owned the quote.  The last sentence would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

But the Gaddafi regime is not sovereign. When you murder you own people, you lose whatever tenuous grasp on those straws you ever managed to muster.  The Libyan people are sovereign.  Their idea of Libya is sovereign.  The reigning government is not.  But what does it mean to say that a people are sovereign if they’re not also free? If protests are met with bullets? If that popular sovereignty cannot be expressed. The truth is that we don’t know what set of priorities the sovereign people of Libya would choose for themselves if given the chance (apart from deposing Gaddafi).  That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the rights of self-determination. They deserve it and they deserve the support of free peoples.  But I continue to question the degree to which the Obama doctrine really supports the people of Libya. Yes, preventing a massacre of a civilians provisionally registers as a just casus belli, but Welch is right: people who based their opposition to Iraq on the previously unprecedented doctrine of preemption who don’t see the Libyan engagement as a preemptive war are kidding themselves.  This is a war, and it is a preemptive one.  I am wont to say that the disagreeable means justify the ends of preventing a civilian massacre, even as I’m wont to say that no one except committed pacifists would now oppose preemption in Iraq if WMDs addressed to the US had ever been found there.

Good God, what a mess.  And now there are reports coming from a Vatican official that US NATO bombs have killed 40 Libyan civilians.  Remember that line in the president’s speech about the Libyan civilians coming to the aid the American rescue team that came for the pilots of the grounded F-15?  For the first time ever, I have started to believe that Barack Obama has bigger brass ones than Bill Clinton, because guess what?  Our guys mistakenly shot six of those helpful, peaceful, friends. One was a kid.  No one died, but the boy might lose his leg.  Is this the acceptable collateral damage of “kinetic military involvement,” or is this the basic stupidity behind all wars and behind all acts of aggression?

Getting back to my original point:  Libya, the nation, is sovereign and is without a legitimate government.  That vacuum is dangerous, provisional, and fraught with hardship.  But it doesn’t cede Libyan sovereignty to NATO, the West, the US, or Barack Obama.  We’ve seen that play out here before.  It doesn’t end well.  As commenter SingleMaltMonkey said here on a recent post, none of this ends until we stop selling arms, until we get serious about dialog. Until we don’t brazenly assert our right to stop humanitarian crises when they’re happening in countries who’s fate is somehow fundamentally aligned with our “interests and values.” (Ed. note: the following sentence is added to clarify SMS’s position and what I’m adding to it as per our discussion in the comments below). To that, I’d add: until we stop saying we’re justified in intervening to protect civilians because our national interests and values are also at stake.  I mean, what the hell does that even mean?  It’s in our interest to stop humanitarian crisis everywhere, isn’t it, because that’s what people with souls want to do.  But when we say “yes, we can get kinetic on this one because, oh happy day, we can justify intervention by some vague appeal to natural law and universal rights and happy unicorns, and, um, also our (bwa ha ha ha) interests,” we sound like the opportunistic douches the most extreme haters say we are.   I guess that’s why John McCain and others are saying that regime change has to be our ultimate military priority like it was with Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. I guess that’s why attacking military installations, sending the CIA, and hoping that the regime in Tripoli just says uncle strikes so many as the worst combination of a bunch of ways forward.

To recap:

  • This is a preemptive war.
  • War probably doesn’t really help the net good of Libya or the planet.
  • But Libya’s already in a war, and civilians should be protected by powers that can protect them.
  • By attacking his own people, Gadaffi has formerly ceded power. That power sits in a vacuum, and that’s cause for bot concern and hope. And that makes everyone uncomfortable.
  • This power does not belong to the US or any outside force.  It belongs to the Libyan people.  But ff the Libyan people are left unprotected, they might be massacred, even those who don’t pick up any arms to fight Gadaffi.
  • We feel like we should do something, but we can’t call it war or preemption because those are things George Bush does.  We are not George Bush.
  • So we call war “kinetic military action” and we say that the massacre of civilians is always bad, but it’s only bad enough to stop when our other interests are also at stake.
  • We sound like assholes.
  • We kill and maim civilians.
  • This all gets very ugly.

Does the humanitarian crisis end if Gadaffi isn’t deposed?  Does deposing Gadaffi ourselves line up with our humanitarian military mission?  Is a humanitarian military mission a contradiction in terms?  Does deposing Gadaffi ourselves ice the so-called Arab Spring?

Oh, and in case you missed it: this preemptive war just accidentally killed 13 rebels.

4 thoughts on “Is This War Preemptive? Is Libya Sovereign? Do Words Mean Things?

  1. Some heat and passion here, Chris. I had a quick check through my comments and yes, I do think we should stop trading arms with oppressive regimes and that we should engage them in dialogue on some level in order to bring about change (makes sense to me). I am a cynic about self-interest, true – but from that I think you make the leap that I am against defending innocent civilians. Which I’m not and was not my intention to infer. Occasionally we hear about how many protesters have been killed in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, but as far as I can tell there hasn’t been so much as a diplomatic finger wagging. You are right. Good God, what a mess.
    Pre-emption, and then reflection, in Iraq, however, is slightly different. WND’s were never going to be found there. Hans Blix said he couldn’t find any. The Iraqi ministers said there weren’t any. Oh how we laughed. Now it is clear who was telling the truth. The grounds for pre-emption have shifted, and, if mired by a twisting of the truth, and if Matt Welch’s assessment proves to be true, we should all view this with some gravity. But if the base level remains protecting innocent civilians then that is what we should do. But, to draw a weaponry analogy, we do have more strings to our bow in future.

    1. Great points. I just wanted to say that I this post wasn’t in response to your comments on the previous post, which I think I was mostly in agreement with. I didn’t think you were saying you were against protecting civilians…I think we’re all for that. I’m just really cynical about how cynical it sounds for Western leaders to say: we can’t protect civilians everywhere (which is true), but we’re going to do it where we also have a clear national interest. It’s as if the justification for intervention isn’t really the surrender of sovereignty that comes to any regime that kills its own civilians (this was the argument of many when we intervened in Kosovo), and that we can legitimately act simply because our interests (and values!, he said) are at stake. That seems wrong-headed to me on Obama’s part.

      Mike, thanks for your comments and interactions. I definitely didn’t mean this post as a response to you…like I said, I really appreciated and mostly agreed with your previous comments. Thanks again!

      1. I just re-read everything and I see what I did…my clauses and use of commas where I referred to your view that we need to stop doing amrs deals are muddled and not very clear…you said we need to engage in dialog and stop trading weapons…I meant to tack on “we need to stop protecting civilians and justify doing so in terms of our national interests,” but that’s not actually how I worded it in the heat of the moment (and now I have Asia…that’s a band, for you youngsters reading..stuck in my head).

        anyway, thanks again for reading and for helping me clarify what I meant!

  2. Thanks for the clarity, Chris. I do agree with your stance on this. The situation in the Arab world is going to take some clever footwork to resolve on all sides. I pray that Saudi doesn’t kick off and that talks have already begun to move to a more liberal state an the back of disaffection elsewhere. A “situation” there would expose some very entrenched interests.

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