The Libya Intervention: another worst decision except for all the others

Someone always pays the price” is a good general rule, but it goes for every alternative to whatever actual decision made under conditions of uncertainty, and thus makes for a weak ending for another in a series of posts by Daniel Larison blaming the “ruin of Mali” on the U.S.-facilitated international intervention in Libya.

This morning the twitter feed for The American Conservative linked to the post with a misleading summary: “Obama,” it tells us, “should acknowledge that the Libyan intervention undermined international peace and security.” Yet the article itself explains why from a narrow political perspective, Obama should do nothing of the kind. Aside from the fact that such an acknowledgment would more likely harm than help him in the final weeks of an electoral campaign, from a broader perspective there is the further difficulty that Obama may not believe the premise and has given no indication that he does.

As for whether he or we should believe it, the post does not demonstrate or even try to demonstrate that assistance to and intervention on behalf of the Libyan rebels undermined international peace and security. Without taking any other concerns or complexities into account, Larison suggests at most that the overthrow of the Gaddafi state appears to have undermined Malian peace and security. To Larison’s credit, the post does effectively if not very explicitly acknowledge that an already ongoing process of deterioration in Mali may merely have been somewhat accelerated. To employ Larison’s metaphor, the intervention may have advanced the due date on a bill in the same amount. On the other hand, we do not and cannot know whether a Gaddafi victory over the rebels may not have had a similar effect. We do not and cannot know how the situation in Mali, or in the region, or internationally, or politically in the U.S., would appear if the Obama Administration had declined to intervene in the way that it did or at all.

In other words, the post does not attempt to examine alternative scenarios, as do few of Larison’s otherwise quite thoughtful and very well-informed assessments of international issues. Such an examination in the instance of Libya will sooner or later re-produce or lead back to a familiar set of trade-offs as they must have appeared to the Administration. The Libya decision will very likely be revealed, predictably, to have been a very American decision – instrumentalizing military force on behalf of political-economic popular sovereignty (i.e., “freedom”) against a vulnerable tyranny, in cooperation with allies, with “respect for the opinions of mankind.” It entailed risks and real human costs, shifting them from one group to another – as would every other decision or omission. It may even have been the “wrong” decision from other perspectives. If so, that conclusion would not necessarily imply that there was a simply “right” or “better” decision to be made, or that an American president can be asked or expected to give every or any other perspective higher or equal priority.


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11 comments on “The Libya Intervention: another worst decision except for all the others

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  1. I think you’re right that Larison is being intellectually lazy, but there’s something unsatisfying about arguing from a (lack of) counterfactuals. Hopefully you and Larison (‘s defenders) can hash out more specific models of what might have happened.

    • All systematic examination of counterfactuals sooner or later falls under the Panglossian/Hegelian Absolute: “Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds/one finds that this is the best of all possible worlds.”

      So the main interest for me in model building has to remain the forward view. Excuse me if I ramble a bit, as I’ve got to get to some other business, but here goes: Referencing your tweeted thesis – “Paleocon isolationism tries to benefit from colonialism without rectifying its effects” – I think “paleocon isolationism” like libertarianism is defined by its “isolation” of one set of externalities under a refusal to contemplate the whole system.

      For Larison, the perspective on the absolute – or as we like to say, the ecological – is shifted into a religious dimension: He’s a religious conservative who never, as far as I’ve seen, seeks to integrate his religious and political concepts explicitly. So in the usual way his ideological commitments are everywhere present and nowhere visible in his arguments. He likely does not believe in a “secular” solution to evils – for example, to the ills of colonialism: There is no true “rectification” except in Christ. I’m sympathetic to aspects of that view – reminiscent of Voegelinian anti-gnosticism as I was suggesting at the end of the TC post – but, if I’m correct about it, there’s something deceptive or dishonest, or anyway unsatisfying, in a presentation that all but exclusively criticizes and negates without ever actually declaring itself, and that habitually discounts the distance between the here of American neo-empire in transition and the world of a totally non-interventionist, tamed and inward-looking America. I think that that distance would actually have to be traveled, at potentially very great cost and not just to Americans, not merely imagined.

      • I think you’re absolutely right, but I also have some sympathy for Larison and his fellow-sojourners because liberals have thoroughly clinicized public discourse with secularism. I think our sanitized liberal version of public reason ought to be revisited with the intent of bringing back religious thinkers into the conversation on the up-and-up.

          • I dunno, it seems to me that conservatives are largely right that the Bill of Rights was initially conceived as allowing more religion in public life than recent social-liberal thoughts (or even nonpartisan court rulings) would suggest. There might yet be a way to square “theodemocracy” with pluralism — Romney’s vaunted speech on religion and public life might even serve as a template.

            • fersure, the thought at the time of the Bill of Rights that it would be used to remove all official sota, kinda endorsement of the idea that there’s a God above us was pretty much absent of support if not entirely unimagined.

              what of it?

              we’ve all got some penumbras in the closet.

            • The problem is that if the Great Separation was a fiction and America operates under an actualized political theology, then the entry of other religions into political discourse always points to a displacement of one or the other, not a simple addition. Up until now, it has always sooner or later meant a derogation or demotion of the “traditional religion” in favor of the American liberal religion whose central premise, like the premises of all religions taken fully on their own terms, is not that it’s “a” religion at all, but the truth.

              • No, that’s a false choice, regardless of the statement of Jefferson, Tyler et al, there was a presumption, that the country was nominally Christian till Engel v. Vitale,

                • The one thing the country was not was “nominally” Christian. Its populace consisted largely of Christians of diverse sects, and, until the case you cite, it was still possible for public schools and other public institutions to engage in openly traditionally religious displays, but that’s not the same thing at all as establishment of a single church or national religion of the pre-modern type.

  2. No, Libya is still salvageable, the last month of denial, hasn’t made thjs any easier, Jibril was replaced by Shagour, and now
    zZidan, Magarief is in a weaker position, Bel Hadj’s proxies are in a stronger one, the Library of Congress report commissioned
    last month, explains why.

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