Christopher Hitchens made a forceful appeal for US intervention in his Slate column on Monday:
Far from being brutalized by four decades of domination by a theatrical madman, the Libyan people appear fairly determined not to sink to his level and to be done with him and his horrible kin. They also seem, at the time of writing, to want this achievement to represent their own unaided effort. Admirable as this is, it doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. The wealth that Qaddafi is squandering is the by-product of decades of collusion with foreign contractors. The weapons that he is employing against civilians were not made in Libya; they were sold to him by sophisticated nations. […] Moreover, his indiscriminate barbarism, and the effect of its subsequent refugee crisis on neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, ipso facto constitutes an intervention in the internal affairs of others and a threat to peace in the region.
Here, Hitchens argues on the grounds of moral responsibility: it is simply the right thing for the United States to intervene in Libya to take out Qaddafi. I’m not sure that argument succeeds though, mainly because it is unclear why the US in particular has this responsibility. Why not Egypt or Tunisia, or even France or China?
But even if Hitchens is correct in the sense that intervening in Libya is the right thing to do, I think Anne Applebaum has a powerful response. Her piece is worth reading in full, but here’s the most important part:
[B]eing right, even morally right, isn’t everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It’s important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It’s important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist. Let’s not repeat past mistakes: Before sending in the 101st Airborne, we should find out what people on the ground want and need. Because right now, I don’t hear them clamoring for us to come.
Matt Yglesias calls this the ethic of responsibility, and it’s dead on. Consider this analogy: you and your friend are walking through the park, and suddenly he falls down in intense pain. You know enough to realize that he needs surgery, but you’re no doctor, and you’re too flustered by your friend’s distress to perform surgery even if you were. So is it the right thing for him to (somehow) get surgery? Of course. Should you perform it? Absolutely not! We find a parallel case in Libya: eliminating Qaddafi would be an obvious good, but it’s not clear that the US (or any other country) should make this move.
In light of these considerations, how do we then evaluate Hilary Clinton’s recent declaration that establishing a no-fly zone should be a UN decision, grounded in the will of the Libyan people? I would say with extremely cautious optimism. A no-fly zone seems like one of the least invasive military measures that powers outside Libya could take. But I’m unsure how a country in the midst of civil war could accurately represent its desires through the UN. I’m also worried that the US could use the UN process as a pretext for intervention if it had a strong desire to intervene, although I don’t know how easy it is to do that. Regardless, let’s just hope that the Obama administration sticks as close to a hands-off approach to Libya as possible. History has shown us that the hubristic choice to do otherwise can have disastrous consequences.
(Photo by ensceptico under a Creative Commons license)