Monday, March 21, 2011

How Liberals Debate War

If you’re a fan of David Rees, author of the brilliant comic series Get Your War On (and if you’re not, why not?!), you may recall the quirky posts he wrote some time ago on the various “Golden Ages” of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. Funny stuff, and, I think, well-intended.

But now Mr. Rees may want to declare another Golden Age of TPM, because once again Mr. Marshall shows us liberals how to have a debate without eating one another alive. The subject: Military intervention in Libya. His position: He’s against it. His tone: Eminently reasonable.

Let’s back up. Yesterday Mr. Marshall wrote a piece called “Just a Bad, Bad Idea,” in which he laid out what I think is the most cogent argument against the Libya No Fly Zone and the related military strikes authorized by the United Nations and carried out with the United States in the lead role. I should point out, in the interests of full disclosure, that I am increasingly coming to the opposite viewpoint – that we had to act to stop Gaddafi before he slaughtered thousands of innocents (or, better put: continued to slaughter thousands of innocents) – but I’m hardly gung ho about it. Anyway, in yesterday’s piece Mr. Marshall focused on what he sees as “the three biggest problems” with our current North African adventure:

First, insurrections like these by poorly organized rebel forces depend hugely on momentum and the perceived weakness of the leader. Not long ago Qaddafi’s authority appeared to be crumbling. … By this weekend, without massive outside intervention, it’s pretty clear Qaddafi had already won.

A week ago a relatively limited intervention probably could have sealed the rebels’ victory, preventing a reeling Qaddafi from fully mobilizing his heavy armaments. But where do we expect to get from this now? It's not clear to me how the best case scenario can be anything more than our maintaining a safe haven in Benghazi for the people who were about to be crushed because they’d participated in a failed rebellion. So Qaddafi reclaims his rule over all of Libya except this one city which has no government or apparent hope of anything better than permanent limbo. Where do we go with that?

Second, it’s difficult for me to distinguish this from an armed insurrection against a corrupt autocrat that looked to be winning and then lost. That sort of thing happens a lot. Only in very specific circumstances is there any logic for us to intervene in a situation like that. … This is ugly and it’s brutal but a lot of people getting killed in a failed rebellion isn’t genocide. …And unlike situations where violence can destabilize the larger region, in this case our presence seems more likely to destabilize the larger region.

Finally, the talk of exit strategies is always a bit off the mark in these situations. … The better question is this: can you maintain the initiative in getting to your goal. In this case, we go in and then we’re stuck. …

It looks more like once we’ve closed down Qaddafi’s air forces we’ve basically taken custody of what is already a failed rebellion. We’ve accepted responsibility for protecting them. Once we recognize that, the logic of the situation will lead us to arming our new charges, helping them get out of the jam they’re in.

All of which is, as I say, cogent enough – except that as to the second point, Mr. Marshall is wrong to suggest that the only legitimate reason to intervene in a conflict of this nature (other than for purposes of national defense, which is simply not implicated here) is to prevent genocide. The United Nations has the authority to demand that the government of any member nation stop slaughtering its citizens, even if there is not ethnic animus behind the slaughter (which is what genocide means); and U.N. has the authority to back that up with military force, if it becomes absolutely necessary – and, of course, if the Security Council approves it. See U.N. Resolution 1970 (Feb. 26, 2011), calling for an immediate cease fire in Libya; and U.N. Resolution 1973 (March 17, 2011), authorizing the use of force to impose the No Fly Zone.

In fact, one major problem I have with Mr. Marshall’s analysis – and the arguments mounted by quite a few critics of the Libyan intervention – is that it assumes this is an American military action rather than a United Nations action in which the United States is participating under 22 U.S. C. § 287d. (My friend John Whitehouse – @existentialfish on Twitter – posted excellent discussions of the legal basis for U.S. military involvement here, here and here.) Moreover, as U.N. Resolution 1973 states, one of the critical factors the U.N. Security Council considered in deciding whether to impose the No Fly Zone was the March 12, 2011 decision by the Council of the Arab League calling for it. So this is hardly a situation where the United States is acting alone – nor is it a situation where the United States is, on its own, “tak[ing] custody of what is already a failed rebellion,” to use Mr. Marshall’s words.

But my purpose here isn’t to pick nits with Mr. Marshall. Rather, my purpose is to praise Mr. Marshall for showing how real liberals debate issues like the current military intervention in Libya. Because today – the day after posting what is, as I say, as cogent an argument against U.S. involvement in Libya as I’ve seen anywhere – Mr. Marshall posted a lengthy e-mail response he received from a U.S. government official (expressing the writer’s own personal views, not the government’s) in favor of U.S. intervention in Libya:

The Arab world is in a state of remarkable transformation. But you would be wrong to look at these as individual transformations, individual revolutions, within individual nation-states. … Rather, Libya today occupies a position at the heart of what has been a regional phenomenon, an Arab Spring if you like, that has been defined by a remarkable feeling of solidarity across the Arab world.

By responding favorably to the rebels, and indeed the Arab League’s pleas for military intervention, we are helping to speed Qadhafi’s departure. It isn’t a sure bet, but it’s certainly a far better one than doing nothing. Another successful dictator toppled can encourage the democracy movement to continue, which I believe is in the interests of the region and the world, not to mention our own.

Furthermore, by intervening on the side of the rebels in Benghazi, we are in effect tangibly allying ourselves with the cause of the protesters for the first time since these protests started. And this, too, is in our interests, as there is currently a great deal of anger towards the United States for our past realpolitik-driven friendships with certain of these autocrats. Supporting the transformation in Libya can go a long way towards erasing some of that resentment.

What if we had ignored the rebels’ pleas for our assistance? What if we had stood by and done nothing? As you say Qadhafi probably would have prevailed, and the payback likely would have been terrible, for the people in Benghazi and elsewhere. Democracy would have failed in Libya, and stalled elsewhere.

All of which would have been covered exhaustively on Al Jazeera, of course. Under the overall narrative that the United States, after launching a $1.5 trillion invasion of Iraq, ignored the suffering of the people of Libya despite the region’s urgent requests for assistance. That we let the democracy movement die in Libya, that we betrayed the Arab people and showed that we do not really care about democracy after all, only about our narrow economic interests. Seriously, people on the street were already using these lines with me last week, even before the going got really bad for the rebels.

The damage to our standing in the region would have been enormous and long-lasting, of that I have no doubt. And this most certainly would not have been in our interests.

Of course, I’ve already tipped my hand and so you already know that my sympathies lie with these comments more so than with Mr. Marshall’s (which is not to say I discount Mr. Marshall’s concerns about getting mired in another foreign entanglement – not by any means). But notice how neither Mr. Marshall nor his opponent attacks the other, calls the other un-American or unpatriotic. There’s no kicking of hippies’ shins here, nor was the term “baby killer” invoked; there’s just an honest discussion about an extremely difficult situation.

And I think that’s because as prone as we liberals are to snipe and in-fight, we really do respect the very idea of dissent, debate and honest disagreement. Especially over the most difficult issues we face, like the decision whether to launch Tomahawk missiles and drop bombs on another country. We don’t view our country the way we view a football team – to be blindly supported and rooted for, even when it loses the damn Rose Bowl 45-to-9 … But I digress. Instead, we actually appreciate the enormous weight of the decisions the country faces, and we recognize that our leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, don’t always make the right decisions.

So while I tend to support the intervention in Libya – for now – I will always appreciate the fact that we on the left don’t blindly cheer for every military action our country takes.

(By the way, a special tip of the hat to David Pleasant (@dpleasant on Twitter), who alerted me to both posts on TPM.)

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Excellent, David. Thank you. Well said and much needed now.

    BTW, who exactly won that Rose Bowl?

  2. It's not who won it as a team, it's who the team's quarterback was that irks me. Neuheisel, that twirp.

    I'd agree this is the way liberals debate; I just wish they (or their occasional alter egos, the Democrats) would recognize that the other party doesn't think reason and civility have any part in debates about anything anymore.