American wars require salesmanship, even when Congress surrenders its power to authorize them. Hawks collect justifications, which need not match their motivations. The Obama administration’s case for the war under way in Libya fits this model, except that this time the bombing preceded the PR.
The primary reason we are in Libya is to help replace an especially noxious dictator with something democratic. Though it requires heroic assumptions about the rebels’ liberalism, the apparent ease of this revolution is what excited interventionists.
Certainly humanitarian concerns influenced some Libya hawks, including the President and his advisors. But that rationale is more selling point than motivation. Libya’s is a not particularly brutal civil war compared to others we ignore.
Nor is it clear that bombing Libya serves humanitarian ends. True, absent outside intervention, the Libyan government would likely have reasserted its authority in the east, killing rebellious civilians. But the civil war that intervention prolonged will probably kill more. In his March 18 speech justifying war on humanitarian grounds, Obama quoted Qaddafi’s promise to show “no mercy and no pity,” but failed to note that the dictator was threatening rebel fighters, not civilians, and explicitly excluded rebels that surrendered. The point is not that we should bank on such promises but that the path to minimizing violence is uncertain.
Such meretricious boilerplate seems designed to anesthetize thought. When did Gadhafi lose his people's confidence? When did he have legitimacy? American doctrine — check the Declaration of Independence — is that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. So there are always many illegitimate governments. When is it America's duty to scrub away these blemishes on the planet? Is there a limiting principle of humanitarian interventionism? If so, would Obama take a stab at stating it?
The latest White House justification for war is credibility or demonstration effects. The idea is that attacking Qaddafi shows willingness to do so elsewhere, encouraging protesters and pushing dictators to capitulate to them. Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice apparently pushed this line in White House meetings, even including Iran in the list of regimes that would be deterred. Wilsonian pundits of both the neoconservative and liberal internationalist varieties agree.
Credibility arguments attach peripheral concerns to more important ones—hence the term “domino theory.” The Johnson administration claimed that leaving Vietnam would embolden Communists globally, undermining U.S. defense commitments. We bombed Serbia in 1999 partially in the name of bucking up NATO’s credibility for other wars. The Bush administration argued that deposing Saddam Hussein would deter other dictators from seeking nuclear and biological weapons or otherwise defying American and U.N. directives. Opponents of ending the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often argue that leaving would damage our reputation for resolve and invite trouble elsewhere.
Credibility rationales for wars suffer two crippling deficiencies. First, there is little evidence credibility travels much. Second, even if it did, fighting limited wars of questionable value seems likely to damage one’s perceived willingness to fight elsewhere. Western intervention in Libya may encourage Middle-Eastern dictators to crush dissenters rather than accommodate them.