Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Sympathy & Compassion Aren't Good Policy (UPDATE)

I'm not surprised John McCain was all in favor of the US military intervening in Libya's civil war on the Sunday gabfasts. Now, private citizen Newt Gingrich thinks we should be lobbing bombs and cruise missiles in to that poor north African country. In some ways, I'm sympathetic. The folks struggling for freedom from 42 years - 42 years! - of Gaddafi's rule, after some stunning initial successes, are facing stiffening opposition from military forces loyal to Gaddafi. The former Colonel has not shown much restraint, shelling and bombing his own population in an effort to cow it in to submission. While the 300-odd deaths in Egypt were regrettable and tragic, one must admit, after the reports from Libya over the past couple weeks that former Pres. Hosni Mubarak should be lauded for showing restraint. After all, Egypt could very well have descended to this level of violence. That it did not says much about its military and their sense of both duty and honor, and they should be praised for their restraint, and perhaps even refusal to follow a path that would have led to what we are seeing in the country to their immediate west.

The President has said that there are military options "on the table" (God, yet another phrase I am tired of hearing), the most popular being a "no-fly zone" over Libya. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated that implementing a no-fly zone presents certain difficulties, not the least of them being that it would be a de facto declaration of war, because Libyan anti-aircraft batteries would need to be taken out. My guess is they are located not in isolated areas - after all, why would warplanes attack isolated areas? - but places where people actually live. Thus, the possibility looms in such a scenario not only for waging aggressive war against a country with whom we have no particular beef, but of causing possibly significant civilian casualties. Remember, our record on precision air strikes is, well . . . OK, it's bad.

I sympathize with the Libyan rebels, as I do for those in Yemen and Bahrain and Oman and Iran. I grieve the deaths caused by Gaddafi's murderous desire to stay in power. All the same, sympathy and compassion are really not good guides to sound policy, particularly in a case as fraught with hazard as this is. First of all, the rebels in Libya have not requested international assistance in any formal way. In fact, if one follows the rebels, as I do, on Twitter, there is a certain reticence about the entire subject of foreign intervention. While some of the rebels certainly see the attacks on civilians by military aircraft and artillery as necessitating some kind of sustained intervention, others continue to wish nothing more than to defeat Gaddafi on their own terms. This is a not unimportant point. Even if I did support intervention, doing so without popular support from the rebels would not be advised. It would only cause trouble down the road.

As a practical matter, our military is stretched incredibly thin. Currently engaged in two military actions in two Muslim countries, intervention in a third, regardless of the possible merits of such intervention, could very well lead to a third occupation, and all the bureaucratic inertia we see in Iraq and Afghanistan toward remaining for the very long term. Congress seems reluctant, to say the least, to pony up the funds to support much of anything these days; preparing a major military campaign even as the folks who hold the purse strings to the entire United States government are wary of opening them would not exactly boost a morale already sapped by thinning supply lines, dwindling civilian support, and complicated logistical tables, not to mention the actual loss of personnel as domestic stinginess requires further reduction of actual forces in a time of war.

There is, of course, our history of attacking Libya, including the ill-regarded and ultimately tragic 1986 bombing by US F-111 fighter bombers. Denied access to French airspace, the planes had to fly all the way around the Iberian peninsula on their way to and from the bombing run (the planes were based in England). Retaliation for a bombing in a German discotheque that took the lives of several American military personnel, it was that bombing, that included an attack on Gaddafi's residence and killed one of his young daughters, that led, in the course of time, to the bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. So, there is a history of bombings and retaliations and much blood that needs to be accounted here.

In regards Gingrich's ill-advised comments, his casual dismissal of the UN is not nearly as surprising as his equally casual dismissal of NATO. While technically true that we do not "need" to wait for authorization from any international body for military action, the record of doing so isn't that awesome. In fact, when we have so acted with UN authorization, it hasn't gone too well, either. I have to wonder if the simple reality that Gingrich and McCain are so enthusiastic for military action against loyalist forces in Libya isn't the single biggest piece of evidence that doing so is a horrible idea.

As events unfold in Libya, we should do all we can to assist the rebels that is within our current expressed limited means. There are so many reasons why direct military action is a bad idea that we should draw a line there. I recognize that people of goodwill from a variety of ideological positions will disagree, and that's OK. The fact that there is not anything like unanimous support for some kind of military action in Libya should give anyone pause before demanding we start sending our pilots in to harm's way.

UPDATE: It seems liberals dislike military intervention . . . except when we like it. Out of a very real, and understandable, desire to end the suffering of the Libyan people, there seems to be this belief that the US military, which the left normally wishes to dismantle, has endless sources and resources. Thus, commenters at an Yglesias post. For example:
Nial Ferguson sucks balls. He's horrible. So is Charles Krauthammer who Applebam links to.

"This is the “ethic of responsibility” approach. What’s wanted on Libya aren’t bold ideas to fix things that are as likely as not to end up creating some new horrible problems, "

In other words, "Not. Our. Problem."

Here's pseudo in nc's favorite writer Hitchens

"And yet there is a palpable reluctance, especially on the part of the Obama administration, to look these things in the face. Even after decades of enmity with this evil creep, our military and intelligence services turn out not even to have had a contingency plan. So it seems we must improvise. But does one have to go over all the arguments again, as if Rwanda and Bosnia and Kurdistan had never happened?"

Clinton said Rwanda was the biggest mistake of his 8 years in office. What was the "ethics of responsibilty" about sitting by and doing nothing while hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings were slaughtered?
OK, let's explore Rwanda for just a moment. Was it a horrible mistake for the US not to intervene? Far more horrible, really, was the concerted effort Clinton's then UN Representative Madeleine Albright waged to ensure that body did quite literally nothing, including give ROE to the UN peace-keeping forces already in that country that might have allowed them to intervene. The moral approbation Clinton should receive extends beyond merely "doing nothing" to actively ensuring that no one did anything.

That's first and foremost.

Second, however, is a question in re possibly intervening in 1994 in Rwanda that is wholly relevant. Rwanda is a landlocked nation, small, with limited physical infrastructure. Even the UN forces then on the ground had logistical issues that seemed insurmountable. Had Clinton suddenly decided to intervene, how might US troops have entered? Perhaps through Kenya and/or Tanzania, two large, neighboring countries with whom the US enjoys good relations. US officials contact the Kenyans/Tanzanians and informs them we need to use their territory to stage a humanitarian military intervention in Rwanda. Haggling ensues even as more Rwandans die. The logistical tables are drawn up, forward staging - in the Middle East perhaps - begins. All that is awaited is a signal. Once we arrive in Kenya and Tanzania, there is the not inconsiderable task of getting all these troops and vehicles and supplies from the forward bases to Rwanda itself. Meanwhile, the Rwandan military has been instructed to resist. Now, this may be thought a minor matter, but invading Rwanda even in a case like this would be an act of war. So, we have the prospect of American troops, seeking only to stop mass killing, suddenly embroiled in combat, their supply lines already thin, with minimal air support. The entire prospect, while certainly laudable, becomes a logistical and political and diplomatic nightmare.

OK? Got that? So, some lefties want to feel good about "doing something". Fine. Give me, in detail, how you would go about "doing something" in regards to Libya, that minimizes civilian casualties, respects the wishes of both the Libyan rebels as well as international law, gives our troops maximum flexibility to do the mission and succeed, and always make sure there's an exit strategy from the get-go so we don't wind up with another open-ended occupation in the Muslim world.

It's easy to talk about doing stuff. Pony up.

Then, there's this comment:
What was the "ethics of responsibility" about giving political cover while hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings were maimed or killed and millions were displaced?

Wait, wait, that's right, at least we were doing something...even if it was wrong.
Again, it is so easy to take the high moral ground in a situation like this. In particular when one has zero responsibility for addressing the messy details of what an alternative policy might be. Which is yet another example of why I truly, truly dislike such earnest breast-beating. Again, put up or shut up.

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