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Opportunism costs

September 1, 2011

A debate erupted in reaction to this great piece by Joshua Foust on why sovereignty still matters and the premature triumphalism surrounding the war in Libya. One of the long-running arguments surrounding the intervention in Libya has been whether or not Responsibility to Protect is a principle that the United States ought to go out of its way to enforce or whether it is one that should only be enforced when the United States can make a difference. Even among critics of the Libyan intervention, there tends to be some acknowledgement that Libya was where America could make a difference, whereas the United States could not “make a difference” in other, more violent scenes of the failure to uphold the norms of R2P.

This is rather misleading, because the reduction of R2P to a merely opportunistic concept undermines the principles of R2P itself. After all, if R2P is only undertaken when action can cheaply and presumably quickly “make a difference” then it’s not very much of a responsibility. The notion that Libya was where there was international consensus is also something of a hollow argument. After all, there was no international consensus until the US decided to jump in with the Europeans, and it had to negotiate hard to prevent a veto by the Chinese and Russians. The international consensus was very deep and getting such a shallow consensus is not necessarily beyond the realm of US power. Granted, seeking such a consensus for a major intervention in a country such as say, the Congo would not be a productive use of US time and resources, but if we genuinely have a responsibility to protect then that implies the US should perhaps at least try to and create opportunities where it can “make a difference.” The notion that the US is some helpless voice in the wilderness which has no power to create its own international context is simply wrong. The truth is we know why we ended up choosing to create that context in Libya and not in other places. That is because Libya is not purely an enterprise of R2P.

Foust notes the parallels in the preemptive logic of R2P in Libya and counterproliferation in Iraq. There is another similarity in the so-called grand strategic purposes and national interests behind both invasions. I am usually reluctant to compare Libya to Iraq because of the inevitable unproductive arguments which usually follow even the most anodyne assessment of similarities, but in this case there is a disturbing parallel that says more about how the US conceives of its national interests than anything else.

The national interest justifications for Libya and Iraq, at least the most powerful ones, were about sending messages and changing perceptions. As Obama said in his March 18 speech to retroactively sell the war:

[A]s president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

The key problem for American interests was what it would look like for the United States to stand aside. The idea was to send a message to the Arab world that America was on the side of the Arab people – never mind, of course, that the US was decidedly not on the side of those Arabs if they happened to be Saudi, Bahraini, Qatari, or Emirati – and to show dictators that America did not like it when they slaughtered their own people, a lesson which dictators have heard and ignored for the past few decades. After all, the likelihood attempting to defeat a revolution or win a civil war will keep a regime in power is rather higher than the US actually doing anything to stop them.

Iraq saw the employment of a similarly nebulous idea of a strategic interest. Even though Saddam Hussein was a decidedly awful ruler, he was one the US had previously been able to live with provided he kept his armed forces away from US friends – as was the case with Gaddafi before him. As Thomas Friedman so eloquently explained, the idea behind the Iraq war was this:

Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.

We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth. [emphasis mine, link intentional]

The pretext, of course, was much harder to apply in Iraq than in Libya. For one thing, NGOs and IGOs had not unwittingly forged a wide-ranging re-conception of sovereignty that made the perennial dictatorial habit of answering demands for freedom with bullets a capital offense, should the judge, jury, and executioner rise to the occasion. The fabrication of Iraq’s WMD programs through mass willful self-deception was a far more problematic issue than the hypothetical razing of Benghazi, which was at least plausible since there were no technical constraints on Gaddafi undertaking that course if he wished it, while Saddam’s bluster about WMDs was empty posturing directed against the Iranians.

Yet the striking similarity of the desire to “send messages” about American support for principles as a substitute for its ability or willingness to actually enforce that principle coherently for fear of harming America’s allies should be eye-opening. America’s reluctance to mobilize the national strength or reorient national policy for the overthrow of Assad in Syria or support the downfall of the nastier Gulf dynasties parallels its frustrating feelings of strategic impotence in the face of its continued dependence on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the wake of 9/11. America wanted to fight extremism in the Middle East and Islamic world but was locked into a close relationship with countries harboring, funding, and supporting those extremists, nor could it afford a fight with either of them, so it invaded Iraq. Then, America found itself wanting to support democracy despite its tight bonds with Gulf monarchies, security interests in Yemen, and its inability to cheaply swing the big stick against Syria.

Intervening when we can to “send a message” encourages the sloppy thinking about US foreign policy which has contributed to our grand strategic insolvency and incoherence in the post-Cold War era. Our concerns with looking tough, looking responsible, looking altruistic, or looking credible lead us to wage or join wars in places where we have very little, if anything, immediately at stake. Fighting wars for narrative or image, as I have argued before, is foolish. Since there is no such thing as “Arab opinion” as a political force, only specific manifestations of the opinions of discrete Arabs within the particular political entities they participate in (just as there is no such thing as European opinion or world opinion in this quasi-mystical sense), and it is so easily subject to change from events unrelated to the intervention itself, it is hard to argue fighting a war to attain such an objective, or another metaphysical concept such as the “momentum” of a revolutionary wave or the transcendent role of global society is a worthwhile aim of US policy.

The criteria “because we can” is extremely unsatisfying. For a brief moment in time, the military balance in a specific country appears favorable enough to intervention as international opinion begins to condemn it. Add urgency, and the magic “window of opportunity” appears to for the US to do something that will at least achieve some short term goal, like destroying a certain regime capability or even overthrowing it at a relatively low cost. However, to think that establishing this as an acceptable threshold for intervention and leaving it at that is anything but an invitation for poorly conceived wars is sheer madness.

By the standards we have laid out for success in Libya, the US invasion of Iraq was a total success within a week of its capital falling. The feared hypothetical disaster was averted. The dictator’s capabilities for international mischief were gone, even if he was not in the bag. America had stood up for its ideals. The regime had fallen at relatively low cost.

There are also parallels with the US war in Afghanistan early on. For some reason, there is a temptation to see Libya, along with Afghanistan, as the vindication of a low-footprint and airpower strategy (a topic I will leave to others to discuss in depth) because during a brief moment in time they achieved success against a fourth-rate military opponent.

The best thing the Libyan intervention has to be said for it is that instability there is not a US problem even if it takes a particularly nasty form. Libya is not in the heart of the Middle East and does not significantly affect the calculus of many regional powers the way Iraq did. However, pursuing the illusion of a strategic goal at relatively low cost to concrete US interests is merely a milder form of incoherence made palatable by the notion that the US was fulfilling a responsibility it had virtually no intention of fulfilling anywhere else. So, opportunity might answer the question of “Why not Syria?” or “Why not Congo?” but at the end of the day we are still left with the shaky argument for “Why Libya?”

Besides worrying about cheap and convenient ways to fulfill its perceived Responsibility to Protect, US policymakers might also consider their responsibility to their own people to use force in the national interest above all else. They might also, while they are at it, conceive of that interest in a more concrete fashion instead of seeking the imagined putty of a region’s opinion and its supposedly transcendent influence on actual geopolitics and malleability to a single US intervention. It might also conceive of its interests on a longer and more patient time frame than the “window of opportunity” for an operational achievement with dubious strategic results.

As long as sending messages to those we don’t like to, essentially, “Suck. On. This.” because “we could” remains an acceptable criteria for the strategic calculus of a moralized US foreign policy, R2P will be just as prone to the geopolitical pitfalls of previous forms of humanitarian intervention and just as unhealthy and confounding for American foreign policy. Recognizing the radical changes such ideas about American power pose to the international order, we ought to be very concerned that these flimsy strategic rationales are the only reward for American interests and that we are supposed to rely on an opportunistic mindset as a bulwark against exhaustive implementation of the doctrine.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2011 3:03 pm

    While agreeing that ‘sending a message’ can be a flimsy rationale for the use of military force, I do think it should be acknowledged that there is a big difference, in terms of costs to the U.S., between an intervention involving substantial ground forces and a military occupation (Iraq) and interventions that use only air power and logistical ‘assets’ (Libya, Kosovo). Libya was a case where the British and French took the lead, for reasons of self-interest as well as humanitarian motives, and in that context the Obama admin had to decide whether to support Britain and France or not. Not an easy call, even from the standpoint of pure ‘national interest’ considerations. I heard on the radio a former govt official (some kind of nat’l sec. adviser to GWBush) bemoaning that the US did not take the lead in Libya, that it left that to Britain and France. He thought this a deplorable sign of US weakness. I don’t see it that way at all. There was nothing wrong in letting Br. and Fr. take the lead, and contributing support along with others, including (as has been widely noted) some Arab states. This does not go, admittedly, to the more basic question of whether the Libya intervention made sense in the first place. On that I think reasonable people can differ, in a way that I don’t think they could differ on the invasion of Iraq.

    • September 2, 2011 8:09 pm

      I agree there is a large difference in costs, but I think there is something to be said for the danger of thinking opportunistically, which, so long as it persists, will express itself with as many resources as are available at the time.

      I wholeheartedly agree that Europeans taking the lead is a good sign. The war matters the most for them and they ought to take the lead as consequence. What I don’t agree with is the assumption in the US NSS that US participation in such ventures will necessarily be reciprocated when the US has more at stake when Europe does.

  2. September 1, 2011 3:13 pm

    P.s. I just glanced at the Nick Prime post you linked. He asks what good is it to remove a dictator just to leave a failed state in his wake. This I think is the wrong question, at the least premature. There are no grounds for thinking at this point that Libya will become a failed or collapsed state — as opposed to a very chaotic state in very messy transition from kind of govt to another. Chaos does not equal collapse. There are very few truly collapsed or ‘failed’ states now — Somalia is, obviously, beyond that other cases (even Afghanistan) seem debatable. F******up states are not necessarily failed states, and it’s better for most people to be f******up in a chaotic transitional democracy than in a kleptocratic, nepotistic, patrimonial autocracy. (Not that I’d want to live in either but that’s not the issue.)


  1. Wading into the R2P Mire : Introduction to International Relations
  2. A Note on the (Raging) Debate over R2P, Sovereignty, and International Order « Dart-Throwing Chimp
  3. moving past promotion: securing human rights « Securing Rights

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