Sunday, September 4, 2011

NYT columnist: "If you love humanitarian intervention so much, why don't you invade Russia?"

In the New York Times today, Steven Erlanger writes an awful editorial about "the lessons of Libya." It's a ponderous piece: most of the "lessons" belong in a remedial-level current affairs course, not on the front page of Times. (Among his observations: the war in Afghanistan is going badly! Many European citizens are skeptical about its feasibility! Some European nations are pretty broke! Sometimes, intranational political concerns frustrate international coalitions!) But what really stuck out for me was his completely botched assault on the rationale for Libyan intervention.
But oh what a war! More than six budget-busting months against one of the weakest militaries in the world, with shortages of planes, weapons and ammunition that were patched over by the pretense that NATO was acting simply to “protect civilians,” when it was clear to everyone that the alliance was intervening on one side of a civil war. All resemblances to the Kosovo war, of course, are a priori inadmissible. That was the war — 78 days of bombing Serbia and thousands dead before Slobodan Milosevic finally capitulated — when NATO said: “Such a success, never again!” Yet here we are — with the “responsibility to protect” the new mantra, replacing Kosovo’s “humanitarian intervention.” Both are debatable, given the failure to intervene in the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya then and Syria, Bahrain or Yemen now.
Dear Steven Erlanger: if the choice to protect Libyans from Qaddafi but not to protect Chechens from Russia seems arbitrary to you, it's not because NATO's mission is muddled. It's because you're being thick-headed.

I don't ask that all foreign policy analysts become pragmatists, but some small smidgen of pragmatism should be a prerequisite before writing an editorial like this. A worldview in which we cannot practice humanitarian intervention without also invading Russia, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen isn't much use to anybody at all.

What's remarkable is how, just half a page later, he says this:
The question, however, is whether European members of NATO will ever decide to embark on such an adventure again.
Indeed, that would be an interesting question, if you hadn't just told us that NATO members resolved to abandon humanitarian intervention after Kosovo. If I didn't know better, I'd say that it's hard to predict whether future wars will be fought, because each potential war is the result of a cost-benefit analysis that is uniquely applicable to the situation at hand.

Libya has proven a remarkable litmus test for foreign policy thinkers. On one side, you have people like Erlanger, who seem to understand the decision to commit military resources as a manifestation of a set of abstract principles, defined in advance and applied evenly to every circumstance. To them, the Libyan war is aberration that speaks to the hollowness of our foreign policy pursuits. On the other side, there are people who looked at Libya and saw a dictator who had started a war with his own people and was days away from slaughtering hundreds of thousands of them. They knew Libya was a tiny country with a weak military and they thought, "Maybe we can do something about this."

Military intervention in Libya was desirable precisely because the objective was so eminently achievable and so few other options remained. Some would have you believe that going to war on this basis is arbitrary, unfair, or even immoral. But why? The alternatives, as Erlanger's editorial demonstrates, are either doing nothing while preventable atrocities unfold, or launching ourselves headlong into hopeless wars that will leave almost everyone worse off for the effort.

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