WAR AND THE NATIONAL INTEREST
When I heard that the U.S. military would help enforce a no-fly zone in Libya, my visceral reaction was joy. Though I realized this could mean involvement in a war, Obama’s decision just felt right. Gaddafi had said to his political opponents in Libya that “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” And in uttering those words, he was threatening the residents not only of Libya but of any Arab country who dared to fight tyranny. Indeed, Gaddafi was also providing a road map to tyrants: brutalize your would-be reformers in the worst way, or risk going the way of the dodo bird … or Mubarak.
Sitting in the relative calm of my home in Bethesda, Maryland, I had but one sentiment: we’ve got to stop this son of a bitch. We can’t let a few power-crazed strong men snuff out expressions of dissent in the Arab world. In Gaddafi’s case, he wasn’t just talking about cracking down on reformers. He was going to get Medieval. Tarrantino, DePalma, and the ghost of Kubrick couldn’t help but be impressed by the impending “ultra-violence.”
When it comes to the emotions, then, my reaction to Obama’s call to arms in Libya was unambiguous. Intellectually, though, certain doubts crept in. How, I asked, is this any different from the other circumstances where we used force to impose our own chosen type of government on another people? Should we invade every country whose leader strong-arms would be reformers? Should we bomb the compounds of all the world’s dictators? Should we give the leaders of developing nations a choice: implement a republican democracy or die?
Soon, I started hearing the voice of that Klingon from an old Star Trek episode: “Surrender must be unconditional and immediate … Prepare to be boarded, or destroyed.” Somehow, an act of humanitarianism had turned into a macho chant of jingoism. And that’s when it dawned on me that the problem was simple: wars should be initiated very, very sparingly, and only based on compelling and clearly enunciated principles. Otherwise, the next thing you know, you’ll be behaving like a Klingon … or a Cheney.
So, here’s the question: have we enunciated sufficiently compelling principles that support waging war in Libya? The answer to that is obvious. We haven’t clearly enunciated much of anything when it comes to Libya – except for the idea that Gaddafi is a bad man who ideally would be out of power. (Something that could be said for numerous other world leaders.) Perhaps because of everyone’s fatigue from the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither the Administration nor the American public is willing to embrace stopping Gaddafi as the grounds for war.
Consider the words of White House press secretary Jay Carney, when we asked point blank this past Wednesday whether we should call what is happening in Libya a “war”:
"Look, it is a -- obviously, it's military action. Did we invade Libya? No. Are we -- do we have U.S. troops on the ground in Libya? No. You can call it -- it's been a false argument that some media outlets have tried to engage about the nomenclature here. It is the use of military force in concert with our allies. Military force is inherently a risky proposition, puts men and women in harm's way, and military -- but what it is not is in the context that we live in today, anything like a situation where you had I believe at one point 170,000-plus U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq; where you have 100,000 U.S. troops and 140,000 ISAF troops overall in Afghanistan in a prolonged engagement, a prolonged war. That is not what is happening in Libya.”
I think we now have a new definition of waging war – a military action in which you invest a minimum of 100,000 troops. So by that definition, when in Dr. Strangelove, General Jack Ripper initiated a nuclear holocaust of the Russians through the use of B-52 bombers rather than scores of thousands of ground troops, I guess he wasn’t waging war. It was a mere “military action.” Somewhere under the ground, George Orwell is smiling in his grave.
At times, American leaders trump up justifications for war when they can’t think of a good enough reason to explain the real McCoy. In this case, the opposite may be happening. We might be afraid to announce our support for a war even though one could truly be justified. What is a more compelling reason to implement “regime change” than that there exists a madman who is threatening the most inhumane possible slaughter of his people – or at least those of his people who dare to speak out against his tyrannical leadership? And doesn’t this rationale for war become especially compelling when it is taking place during a pivotal juncture in the democracy movement that is spreading throughout the most explosive region in the world?
Frankly, the only way you could justify NOT acting under such circumstances is because you don’t want that democracy movement to succeed. And many westerners don’t. It’s the old line about how “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” In this case, that’s code for the idea that the authoritarian, though somewhat pragmatic, leaders who’ve been dominating the Arab world could well be preferable to the elements in the Arab street who wish to implement Sharia law, at the expense of, among other things, women’s rights and the welfare of Israel.
Truly, I have no crystal ball and am unable to guarantee what will happen in Arab countries like Egypt and Tunisia that are overthrowing their dictators. But I for one would like to see this happen in Libya. More to the point, as a Jew, I can’t sit back and watch Gaddafi threaten what amounts to genocide against the Libyan people, particularly when he obviously had the means to carry out his threat absent NATO intervention.
Another reason why I tend to support the United States’ attack on Libya is because I trust it is not motivated by our typical pedestrian (i.e., short-term, materialistic) sense of the so-called “national interest.” Sometimes, you get the impression that we pick and choose which countries to invade based on whether the enemy poses a threat to our pocketbooks, or its ouster presents an opportunity for our pocketbooks. Personally, I don’t like the idea of waging wars over oil. I prefer the idea of waging wars to stop an impending slaughter. People matter more than oil; it’s just that simple.
So when I hear Secretary of Defense Gates say that it “is not a vital national interest of the United States” to involve itself in the Libyan conflict, that actually makes me MORE likely to support military involvement there, not less. It makes me trust that the NATO nations are compelled to act because Gaddafi is presenting an unusually profound humanitarian threat, and nothing short of military means can stop him. I still don’t know the end game. I still don’t know how many NATO lives and how much money will be lost in the fight to remove Gaddafi. So yes, I still have my intellectual doubts. But all and all, if asked whether I would support war here, the answer would be yes. It continues to be in the long-term national interest of the United States – and any other nation that has learned the lessons of the Holocaust – to prevent an impending genocide if at all possible. And who knows, if America can help stop Gaddafi and return Libya to the Libyans generally, and not to one megalomaniacal Libyan in particular, maybe, just maybe, the Arab street will deeply appreciate us for our selfless act of humanitarianism on their behalf.
Now THAT would be in our national interest.