“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.