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No blood (or treasure) for narratives

August 20, 2011

Matthew Yglesias previously pointed out the utter absurdity of making US force decisions on the basis of providing a retroactive justification for the strategic disaster that has been the war in Iraq. Well, get ready for more of the same as Libyan rebellion reaches Tripoli, and the real fun of trying to stabilize, rebuild, and hold together a post-Gaddafi Libya becomes the new focus of the Western world’s involvement in the Arab Spring.

Naturally there has been a lot of retrospective examination of the motives and rationale for the Libyan intervention, and it should be noted that the supposed combination of US interests and values at stake remains a dangerously misleading concoction. Fred Kaplan, who wrote a good summary of why we are intervening in Libya and not in Syria, writes this, which I cannot agree with:

Taking action was also a good idea from a realpolitik angle. The controversy unfolded in the wake of the Arab Spring; it was in our interest for the United States and NATO to appear on the side of a popular uprising against a quasi-allied dictator (and Libya’s was about as quasi an ally as could be imagined).

This assumption is, frankly, utterly wrong and completely ignorant of the alternatives. Defining US interests is an exercise in self-affirmation without a serious discussion of alternatives, priorities, and relative resource commitments. Would there have been a less risky, involved, and drawn out way to appear on the side of the people. For example, we could have appeared on the side of the Arab people by putting more pressure on actually allied Arab regimes to reform, rather than an Arab regime we did not fully trust but were at least willing to define as relatively harmless to Western interests.

In other words, how much is the goodwill generated by intervening on the side of the Libyan rebels worth outside of Libya, which has very little bearing on US interests (although not for Europeans)? Probably not all that much, considering that good will has not surfaced even in terms of public opinion polling. Arabs are still upset about Israel’s blockade and bombings of Gaza and its push to settle the West Bank. Arabs are still upset about the basic impunity with which US-backed monarchies can suppress their own people. Arabs are still upset about Assad’s slaughter of his own population in Syria.

Some will say that Libya was where the US “could” intervene, which is true. But can doesn’t imply ought. There is a strange metaphysical view of the narrative by which altering the narrative becomes the objective. For a realist-minded conception of US interests, this is just manifestly untrue. Treating “the narrative” as a US interest is a quixotic objective. For one thing, the narrative is not wholly under control of the US. Nor is it a monolithic, transcendental entity. The “narrative” means different things for each individual. Appearing to be on the side of Libyan rebels might matter to the abstracted “average Arab,” but there is no such thing as the average Arab. Public opinion is a metric. How many divisions does it have? What does it mean for the actual, discrete use of political power in concrete places?

The truth is that the US can afford to stand by and let terrible things happen in the world. The genocide in Rwanda, which was, of course, an actual genocide involving casualties far larger than anything which plausibly could have occurred in Libya, was an ugly period in US foreign policy, but just a period. By the nature of the international system, the US inevitably must stand by while awful people do awful things. Syria will bear this out.

The problem with the intervention in Libya is that because US interests were designed in such a vague, quasi-metaphysical way, there was very little chance for a discussion of alternatives, since the US “could” do something. Clearly, the talk of showing dictators they cannot kill their own people with impunity is hollow bluster, because every intervention in one country reduces American power and leverage to stop atrocities somewhere else. Syria is showing that, yes, dictators can and will murder their own, as they have done for millenia and will continue to do. So there was never a chance (as critics of the intervention have insisted) that what the US did in Libya would deter other dictators, unless it was to demonstrate a method that the US could easily replicate in other regions (this is why deterrence is often a much more straightforward concept when nukes are involved, where the US generally had more than it “needed” or might even be able to use).

The narrative is ethereal, it is not and cannot be an interest. This will be important for the United States going forward. There will be much pressure, for both internal and external political reasons, to make it “appear” that the US made a good decision to intervene in Libya, to rewrite the first draft of history. The US should ignore these temptations. In terms of concrete interests, stabilizing Libya cannot and should not be a US priority. The Europeans will gladly free ride off of others efforts to stabilize a potential influx of refugees into Europe. Just as we should not expect the rest of the world to take on America’s burden of stabilizing Caribbean states to prevent mass exodus to the US, the US ought not be in the business of facilitating the EU’s immigration and neighborhood policy preferences. The US cannot and should not take the lead in stabilizing Libya. We are already on the hook for East Africa, the Gulf, and East Asia, as well as much of the Western Hemisphere. If the EU cannot stabilize its own neighborhood, then the fault and consequences lie far more with them than the United States.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2011 7:02 pm

    If only we had the rational calculus of the antiwar movement of eighteenth century Europe:


    • August 20, 2011 7:04 pm

      and of the coming 21st century: No blood for lithium! The 22nd – no blood for Helium-3! And the inevitable post-apocalyptic future: no blood for oxygen!

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