Six Bad Arguments for Bombing Libya

In his speech last night defending U.S. participation in Libya’s civil war, President Obama repeated the justifications for bombing Libya that I attacked in a post written for the National Interest last Friday, “Three Phony Reasons to Bomb Libya.”

1. The President argued that Qaddafi recently “lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead.” I’ll again quote George Will on that:

Such meretricious boilerplate seems designed to anesthetize thought. When did Gaddafi lose his people’s confidence? When did he have legitimacy? American doctrine — check the Declaration of Independence — is that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. So there are always many illegitimate governments. When is it America’s duty to scrub away these blemishes on the planet? Is there a limiting principle of humanitarian interventionism? If so, would Obama take a stab at stating it?

2. Obama said in his speech that humanitarian concerns caused U.S. military action. Here’s what I wrote about that:

Certainly humanitarian concerns influenced some Libya hawks, including the President and his advisors. But that rationale is more selling point than motivation. Libya’s is a not particularly brutal civil war compared to others we ignore.

Nor is it clear that bombing Libya serves humanitarian ends. True, absent outside intervention, the Libyan government would likely have reasserted its authority in the east, killing rebellious civilians. But the civil war that intervention prolonged will probably kill more. In his March 18 speech justifying war on humanitarian grounds, Obama quoted Qaddafi’s promise to show “no mercy and no pity,” but failed to note that the dictator was threatening rebel fighters, not civilians, and explicitly excluded rebels that surrendered. The point is not that we should bank on such promises but that the path to minimizing violence is uncertain.

3. The President claimed that if Qaddafi defeated the insurgency:

The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power. The writ of the UN Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling its future credibility to uphold global peace and security.

I summarized my argument for why this is a terrible reason for war this way:

Credibility rationales for wars suffer two crippling deficiencies. First, there is little evidence credibility travels much. Second, even if it did, fighting limited wars of questionable value seems likely to damage one’s perceived willingness to fight elsewhere. Western intervention in Libya may encourage Middle-Eastern dictators to crush dissenters rather than accommodate them.

Three other arguments that the President made last night need response.

4. He again claimed that while U.S. policy aims to replace Qaddafi with democracy, our military efforts serve only to defend civilians. That’s a useful fiction meant to keep the coalition unified and mitigate worries about mission creep. We are now giving the rebels close-air support (though our military spokespeople aren’t allowed to say so) and attacking the Libyan military even where it does not threaten civilians. As I’ve said, although I oppose fighting in this war, insofar as we are in, we should have a military policy consistent with our goal of helping the rebels win. So this is good mission creep. But even with stepped-up air support, the rebels likely still lack the organization to overtake western cities, meaning that stalemate and de facto partition remain likely.

5. As if to undermine that last claim, the President used the word freedom a half dozen times in his speech, concluding with soaring rhetoric about how promoting freedom is good for Americans. The trouble with this argument is that, as Stephen Walt argues, research on the history of interventions meant to overthrow leaders of weak states shows that the “probability that our intervention will yield a stable democracy is low, and that our decision to intervene has increased the likelihood of civil war.”

6. To convince us that this war is not rash / Bush-like, the President argued that he went to war with the support of the U.N. Security Council, European allies, the Arab League, and the Libyan opposition. Left off the list of consenters are Americans and their congressional representatives. Maybe the President now agrees with Jack Goldsmith that candidate Obama’s 2007 opposition to bombings undertaken without congressional authorization is constitutional formalism rendered moot by decades of congressional supplication before presidents. Maybe he agrees with Hillary Clinton’s contention that the United Nation’s Security Council can legalize what Congress does not or Congressman Jim Moran’s notion that it shouldn’t vote on wars because it is “too easily influenced by public opinion.”

The whole point of separating powers, of course, is to check executive whimsy with congressional power that reflects public opinion. That fact that Congress has authorized plenty of dumb wars shows that the check is insufficient, not that it is useless. It is probably naive to think that Congress would have blocked this war, but by exercising its atrophied war powers Congress at least might have caused the war to be waged with more wisdom and forethought.