The war in Libya happened so fast that most of the commentariat seemed to be caught flat-footed. The international community had apparently decided to go to war without properly vetting their decisions with bloggers! As a result, we got more than our fair share of bad arguments. I’ve been trying to formulate a position of my own, and I’m struck by a strong ambivalence. I don’t like war, and I don’t like three wars at once, but I’m glad my feelings weren’t consulted. It’s David Rieff versus Samantha Power all over again, and I don’t know who is right this time, either. It’s a lot easier to figure out who is wrong.

Here are some reasons that anti-interventionists have been giving that aren’t very good:

  1. This is US imperialism: News flash. We’re not in it for the money anymore. By definition, an empire is a mercantilist dream, not a money-pit. We’ve proven that we do care about minority rights and the wellbeing of civilians. We just haven’t proven that we’re smart enough to actually protect those rights and interests when we set out to do so. Bad implementation is not evidence of bad motivations, and hypocrisy is a pretty weak charge compared to all the dead people.
  2. The rebels could be worse than Gaddafi: Elites are elites. I’m all for getting rid of elites, but there’s been no sign that the human race is capable of eliminating hierarchy. If they win, at least they’ll share an ethnic identity with the people they govern. Apparently people like that.
  3. Anything to do with Libya’s national sovereignty: Who cares? This kind of principled objection assumes that Libya is a nation-state, which begs the question that the rebels are asking, “Should we be a nation-state if it means that guy is in charge?”
  4. We should have invaded Bahrain, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia instead: Frankly, if there’s a case for military intervention in those countries, it should pass the same test that Libya is failing now. But those protesters don’t have guns, so an intervention would require a full-scale boots-on-the-ground invasion and occupation. Neither the US nor the international community can afford to do that a third, fourth, and fifth time in a decade.
  5. It’s unconstitutional: While it’s true that Senator Obama said that we would not go to war without congressional approval, hypocrisy is not the end of the constitutional conversation. Let me remind all the new constitutional scholars that we haven’t declared war in the manner mandated by the Constitution since 1941.

Here are some reasons that the pro-interventionists have been giving that aren’t very good:

  1. Gaddafi is a dictator and we have to help those who struggle for freedom: Tyranny, though horrible, is quite palatable when compared to war, especially when we remember that war has more often resulted in tyranny than democracy. There’s a reason we use the term “revolution”: for most people, such events involve a tremendous jostling as the top becomes the bottom and the bottom becomes the top. The faces change, but usually the system of laws and the patterns of domination remain the same.
  2. We have to signal our support for other uprisings: How does intervening elsewhere show the Iranians or Bahrainese we care about them? Doesn’t it mostly say, “We noticed you were having a revolution, but we decided not to help”? This feels a little like going to the hospital where your grandmother is having surgery to check in on an old drinking buddy: our aircraft carriers were in the neighborhood, but we didn’t even drop in for a quick chat or punitive bombing campaign.
  3. Anything that compares this intervention to the interventions we failed to make in Rwanda or Bosnia: This is not that. You can’t get the golden years back with your children, and you can’t fight the just wars that you missed because you were busy dismantling your welfare state. On the other hand, this could turn out a lot like Kosovo, where air war extended the conflict and led to more civilian deaths.
  4. Yeah, but if a quick intervention in Libya can prevent a genocide, then it will have been worth it: A civil war is not genocide, even if the side you’re rooting for is losing. And conflicts aren’t often quick, especially when one side holds itself to air strikes and a defensive posture. The most likely outcome seems to be partition, with the west remaining in Gaddafi’s hands and the east in the hands of the rebels. Back when I advocated partition in Iraq, people accused me of championing ethnic cleansing. If there is a partition, we should remember how that went for India and Pakistan and Bengal: partition means there will plenty of time for this conflict to go dormant and then re-emerge. More war.

Ultimately, when it comes to the use of military force in the modern age, everyone ought to be a consequentialist, in the sense of asking about the likely outcomes. Just war theory is an absurd fig leaf when we’re talking about aerial bombardment. Unsurprisingly it does more to justify wars than to limit them.

The reason we ought to be consequentialists is because wars do more harm to civilian populations than we care to admit. Always. Armies suffer fewer casualties than the civilian populations that support them, and fewer still than the civilian populations of contested territories. You might think soldiers, engaged in active hostilities, would face the brunt of the suffering, but nations at war (other than the US) devote their foodstuffs and medical resources to the military. However, the disruption of a drawn-ought conflict is harder on women and children than it is on the men doing the fighting. Women always sufffer the most in such upheavals, because they are ill-equipped to defend themselves in lawless zones and tend to keep their families together rather than ditching their children (as men do) to fend for themselves. Injured soldiers are returned to their homes and women are expected to care for them while also providing for the family. Often the pressure to enter the labor market finds women badly paid and underemployed. Educational opportunities are cut short, again for the good of the men. Then, too, the longterm psychological on survivors and their families are abominable, not to mention the social effects: when the war is over, you’ve got a bunch of shell-shocked young killers wandering around, often still armed and wondering what to do with themselves.

I am not a military expert. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea. We should judge the consequences, which are always receding into the future. Probably that means that commentators should stick with Mao’s opinion on the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.”