My Washington Examiner column this week is on the growing drumbeat for military action in Libya. That allegedly serious people are proposing, as Defense Secretary Gates puts it, “the use of the US military in another country in the Middle East,” ought to be appalling. If the last ten years haven’t convinced you that a little prudence and caution might serve us well in foreign policy, what would?
Recently Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), the Bobbsey Twins of knee-jerk interventionism, chastised Obama for dragging his feet on the path toward war. They called for arming the rebels and implementing a no-fly zone, for starters.
“I love the military,” Sen. McCain complained “but they always seem to find reasons why you can’t do something rather than why you can.” Alas, “can’t is the cancer of happen,” as Charlie Sheen reminded us recently.
Even so, I argue in the column, there are good reasons to resist the call for this supposedly "limited" measure.
But let's stipulate that NATO warplanes (mainly U.S. fighters, of course) could deny pro-Gadhafi forces the ability to deploy air power. That would not impede their ability to murder on the ground. What then?
NATO flew more than 100,000 sorties in Operation Deny Flight, the no-fly zone imposed over Bosnia from 1993 to 1995, yet that wasn't enough to prevent ethnic cleansing or the killing of thousands of Bosnians in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
It did, however, help pave the way for a wider war and a 12-year nation-building mission. In for a penny, in for a pound -- intervention tends to have a logic of its own.
This is a good occasion, then, to reflect on a fundamental question: What is the U.S. military for? Humanitarian interventionists on the Left and the Right seem to view it as an all-purpose tool for spreading good throughout the world -- something like the "Super Friends" who, in the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, scanned the monitors at the Hall of Justice for "Trouble Alerts," swooping off regularly to do battle with evil.
Our Constitution takes a narrower view. It empowers Congress to set up a military establishment for "the common defence ... of the United States," the better to achieve the Preamble's goal of "secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Armed liberation of oppressed peoples the world over wasn't part of the original mission.
Funny enough, when he first got to Washington, John McCain occasionally appreciated the virtues of foreign policy restraint. As Matt Welch recounts in his book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick: “In September 1983, as a freshman congressman and loyal foot soldier of the Reagan revolution, John McCain voted against a successful measure to extend the deployment of US Marines in war-torn Lebanon.” In a speech on the House floor, McCain argued that “The fundamental question is, what is the United States’ interest in Lebanon?…. The longer we stay in Lebanon, the harder it will be for us to leave.”
Later, Welch writes that, in 1987, when President Reagan reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, offering them “US Navy protection against a threatening Iran, McCain was livid.” He took to the pages of the Arizona Republic to complain that the move was “a dangerous overreaction in perhaps the most violent and unpredictable region in the world…. American citizens are again be asked to place themselves between warring Middle East factions, with…. no real plan on how to respond if the situation escalates.”
It’s been a long time since Senator McCain made such good sense on foreign policy.