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We Have No Idea What We Are Doing in Libya

Four months after American submarines began launching missiles and U.S. pilots began flying sorties, does anyone, perhaps even including President Obama, really know what we are trying to do in Libya? It is true that, compared to Afghanistan, a major war whose outcome is generally agreed to hang in the balance, and to Iraq, from which we have not yet completely withdrawn, and even to Somalia and Yemen, where the tempo of our counterinsurgency operations have been steadily increasing, both directly and by proxy, Libya may seem minor. But, if our military operations in that country are hardly the greatest burden our armed forces confront, they are also hardly trivial. Less than a month before he left office, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated the U.S. would spend $750 million on the Libyan operation, while a Department of Defense document published in May revealed the American contribution to Operation Unified Protector involved 75 aircraft (including drones), flying 70 percent of the reconnaissance missions, 75 of refueling missions, and more than one-quarter of all air sorties. And yet, from March 28, when President Obama announced Operation United Protector’s predecessor, Operation Odyssey Dawn, until now, the fog of incoherent justification for the war has been at least as thick of the proverbial fog of war itself.

Have we gone to war? Well, no, not exactly. We were, Obama said in that first speech, “[committing] resources to stop the killings” of innocent Libyan civilians by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. If the United States has initiated combat operations, this really amounted not to war-fighting, but to taking “all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people” and to “save lives.” And did our actions mean that the goal of the mission was regime change, Iraq- or Afghanistan-style? Not at all, the president insisted. Taking a predictable swipe at the Bush administration, he said dismissively that we had already gone “down that road in Iraq.” It was an apt metaphor, if, perhaps, unconsciously so, since regime change would have required just that: sending troops down the road, on the ground in Libya. And that, the president argued, would be far more dangerous than what he was ordering the military to do.

This may have sounded like the prudent thing, but what it was—what it is, for nothing has changed at all in this regard over the course of the past four months, even though we have officially recognized the Libyan rebels—is the incoherent, internally self-contradictory thing. We believe Qaddafi must go, and we will not let him make significant advances on the ground, but we refuse to take responsibility for his overthrow. So, to use a military term of art, we have an end state—Qaddafi’s ouster—but we are not willing to do what is needed to attain that goal expeditiously, which, of course, is why there is at least, for the moment, still a stalemate on the ground in Libya.

The stark fact is that the outcome Obama wants and the means he is willing to use to secure it are hopelessly mismatched. And this is leaving aside the fact that this “a donkey is a horse designed by a committee” intervention flies in the face of the sense of the War Powers Act and represents one more ornament in the crown of the imperial executive. Oh, for the days of a good old-fashioned congressional declaration of war!

I AM NOT joking. The U.S. involvement in Libya is the logical outcome of policies, pursued under both Republican and Democratic administrations (Somalia under President George H. W. Bush, Bosnia and Kosovo under President Bill Clinton), in which war was never fully acknowledged to be war, with all the gravity that such an acknowledgment would have implied. Instead, we were told that what was taking place was a so-called humanitarian intervention, a kind of armed emergency relief operation (as in Somalia in 1991), or armed human rights intervention (in the Balkans and, now, in Libya). The latest version of this delusion is the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or R2P, as it is almost universally known, that was adopted by the United Nations World Summit in 2005 and ratified by the General Assembly in 2008 with the support of George W. Bush’s administration. R2P states that sovereignty is not absolute and, when a nation is committing crimes against its own population, where feasible and in those cases where all other (non-military) means are believed to have failed, outside powers not only may, but actually have a duty, to intervene. R2P is cited explicitly in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973—the same resolution Obama cited in his speech announcing that he had ordered U.S. military action in Libya.

Those who took a decent English 101 class in college may remember being instructed that a failure of language usually reflects a failure of thought. The truth is that doctrines like humanitarian intervention and R2P are ways of waging war without taking responsibility (or accepting accountability, both moral and democratic) for doing so. That is why they are so pernicious, and why, even in cases where an intervention may be warranted, far from being an improvement on the traditional way that nations and coalitions of states have come to the decision to go to war and how they have waged war, they are actually a very large step in the wrong direction. They allow us to pretend we are not going to war, but, instead, are just trying to protect the civilian population from harm. War, however, is not police work, not armed humanitarianism, not human rights activism with an air force, and it should not be allowed to become anything of the kind. The Libyan precedent is so disturbing precisely because, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, or (again) Somalia, whether one supports U.S. actions in these places or instead favors withdrawal, it reflects such tendencies.

Of course, there are good reasons why humanitarian, democracy-building, and human rights justifications are so attractive to policymakers. In the past, nations went to war for four reasons: out of interest (including wars of conquest); because they were bound by alliances (World War I, to use an obvious example); in self-defense; and out of a belief that it was just to uphold some cause. War is still with us, but, with the exception of self-defense in the broad sense, all these justifications have been increasingly set aside. When the time comes for war, there is only the possibility of state violence couched in the language of peacemaking and peacekeeping. It is a world that George Orwell would have had no trouble recognizing, and the fact that those who champion R2P and other forms of humanitarian intervention have good intentions and are, to use an old-fashioned term, good people, does not make their demarche any less Orwellian.

There is an alternative. It is called just war, and it has existed since the days of St. Thomas Aquinas. If he had thought it right to go to war in Libya, Obama could easily have said something like this:

The insurrection in Libya is a just and decent cause in which the Libyan people have risen up to overthrow the Qaddafi dictatorship. We can’t overthrow every dictatorship, either because they are too powerful, as is the case with China, or because American interests run too deep, as is the case with Saudi Arabia. But, when it is feasible to assist a popular uprising against a tyrant, America should do so. And that is what I have now ordered our armed forces to do in Libya.

Americans might have disagreed with such an assessment. Principled interventionists and principled anti-interventionists would have known where they stood. But neither side, nor, indeed, the great American middle, could have faulted the president for trying to have it both ways, as he has tried to do with the current policy of Regime Change Lite.

Just wars don’t have to be defensive. But they have to be wars, and the dismal folly of R2P and the Obama administration’s use of it in Libya, is that it involves war-fighting without either the seriousness (and the serious will to win) or the moral gravitas that war requires. It turns war into police work, not to say social work (“we’re just protecting innocent civilians,” and all that). Under its aegis (or that of so-called humanitarian intervention), it can’t be fought seriously and to the end.

For anyone but a pacifist, fighting is always an option of last resort. So is standing down. What should not be an option is the unholy compromise between the two that is embodied in R2P and is now having its test run in Libya.

David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.