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Libya and American Responsibility

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

In the course of a blog post discouraging American military action in Libya, Ross Douthat takes issue with those who say the United States has a responsibility to intervene.

The United States is not the government of North Africa, and Barack Obama is not the president of Libya. We have obligations in the region, certainly — treaty obligations, strategic obligations, and yes, moral obligations as well. But America’s leaders are not directly responsible for governing any country besides their own, which means that almost by definition, they/we bear less responsibility for tragedies that result from our staying out of foreign conflicts than for tragedies that flow from our attempts at intervention. By involving ourselves militarily in a given nation’s internal affairs, we effectively claim a kind of political responsibility for the nation or region or question — a small share in the case of a no-fly zone, the lion’s share in the case of an invasion or occupation — that we didn’t have before.

He adds:

Does anyone seriously think that the United States bears just as much responsibility for the horrors of the Congolese civil war (which we “let fester,” in [Peter] Feaver’s phrase) as it does for the post-invasion violence in Iraq? As much responsibility for the casualties in, say, the various India-Pakistan wars as for the casualties in our own war in Vietnam?

Douthat is surely right that no one thinks we have equal responsibility in the cases he cites above, and in that sense his point is well taken. It is worth pointing out however, that in the episodes Douthat mentions, America does have some responsibility--even by his standards. Take the biggest India-Pakistan war, in 1971, when the United States backed and armed a Pakistani military that did far more harm to civilians than America has done in Iraq. As for Congo, and even if one leaves aside the way the CIA and the other Western powers undermined any sort of democracy, and dealt with Patrice Lumumba, you are still left with a legacy of aiding and apologizing for Mobutu, which America did for decades.

None of this means that America should act militarily in Libya. But it is frustrating that everyone on the political spectrum from Pat Buchanan to Brent Scowcroft only begin to throw up their arms and curse American foreign policy when it involves engagements for which a humanitarian case can at least be made.