Three Phony Reasons to Bomb Libya

March 25, 2011 Topic: Military StrategySecurity Region: LibyaUnited States Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: Regime Change

Three Phony Reasons to Bomb Libya

Make no bones about it: the US is in Libya to overthrow a noxious dictator. Legitimacy, humanitarianism, credibility—the rest is just for show.

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.

Another of the president’s reasons for war is that Qaddafi “ lost legitimacy ” to rule. Luckily we have George Will to skewer that nonsense:

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.


As Christopher Fettweis shows, political scientists are nearly unanimous in finding little evidence for the proposition that the believability of threats depends on the outcome of prior threats—Thomas Schelling’s game theory notwithstanding. Daryl Press’ case studies show that when leaders, Hitler included, consider going to war in the face of deterrent threats, they focus on the balance of power and the threat-maker’s interests. It’s not that past credibility does not matter at all, but that it matters far less than other factors.

Soviet leaders did not measure American commitment to defend Europe by its resolve in fighting a useless war in Vietnam. The stakes were obviously different. Whatever Hillary Clinton thinks, Iran’s leaders are not stupid enough to think that enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya means that the United States or United Nations would prevent it from attacking its citizens or Hezbollah from killing Lebanese. The action in Libya would be low on their list of considerations. If the press succeeds in its intellect-draining efforts to glean an “Obama doctrine” from his administration’s ad hoc decision to bomb Libya, the states it threatens are unlikely to give it much credence.


Our past credibility is especially useless where our threats mean to compel change rather than deter it, to use Schelling’s terminology. Saying “give up power by holding fair elections, or we bomb” asks for capitulation. Saying “if you attack your neighbor, we bomb” defends the status quo and requires less humiliation. Leaders clinging to power are unlikely to care what threats we issue to make them surrender it.

Let’s say that’s all wrong and credibility travels easily. We should then husband it, rather than risk it in circumstances where we lack other interests. If deterring the Soviets from attacking Western Europe or anywhere else depended on what we did in Vietnam, credibility would have encouraged American leaders to avoid fighting there and escalating and overstating our interests once we were. Keeping troops available and hence free of diversions that waste the public’s limited support for bloodshed would enhance credibility. Were it a real consideration, credibility would often encourage peace. The fact that only hawks make credibility arguments shows their phoniness.

Embroiling ourselves in Libya may do less to frighten other Middle East dictators then keeping our powder dry. Beyond tying up troops and public patience for war, the limited nature of our commitment—manifest in strict limits on the use of force and our stated desire draw back within days whether or not Qaddafi goes—might simply show dictators that they should hang tough, come what may. Whether or not he falls, if leaders like Bashar Assad fear his fate, they may simply heighten repression to prevent the sort of insurgency that brought western bombs to Libya.