Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Heroes or Hegemons?

President Obama has brought an important question to the forefront of the national consciousness: when should we go to war to stop a massacre? And what does it mean if the US enters into military conflicts with nations that don't directly threaten us?

Of course, we've done this before, in Vietnam, Kosovo, and Iraq, to name a few. But in all those cases an attempt was made to justify our intervention on the grounds of national interest. (Whether you choose to accept those arguments is of course a different thing.) But Libya, as the President's speech last night made clear, is another story: while Obama noted the importance of the Middle East as a whole to our national security, the thrust of his argument for bombing Libya was, "Gaddafi was going to kill a lot of people, and we had the means to stop it."

I am naturally predisposed to this argument: I was in favor of invading Iraq because I felt our country's actions in the previous two decades had left the people of that nation in deplorable conditions, not because there might be WMDs hidden somewhere. But, again as the President himself pointed out, the ensuing eight years have made the costs of this type of intervention abundantly clear, and they are high. Which is why Obama is now trying to thread the needle: do enough to get rid of a murdering bastard without committing our nation to dealing with what is likely to be an unstable situation for the long term.

Peggy Noonan, in a column written before Obama's speech, does a nice job of going over the many fumbles the President made to get to this point, and all the ongoing risks we face. I am particularly concerned that we might do just enough to create a bloody, ongoing stalemate that causes much more suffering than even a Gaddafi victory would have.

But a bigger, more critical issue is brought up by Mickey Kaus: is this third war in the Muslim world an indication that we are becoming some sort of 'humanitarian empire'? He writes:
In a true empire–in this case, the empire of UN approved human rights enforcement–war never really ends. Always someone to protect somewhere. Imagine living in imperial Britain in the mid-19th century. There would almost always be a war or police action–actual shooting and killing–going on.** For a true empire to work– even, or perhaps especially, a humanitarian empire–war has to be routinized. You’ve got two wars going already? No need to change the president’s schedule to start a third.
From where I sit, an unselfish attempt to save innocent lives in distant lands seems noble, even heroic. But, as Kaus points out, the British probably gave themselves kudos for shedding English blood to bring civilization to the world, but they were no less an empire for that. To much of the rest of the world (as I have heard from more than one cab driver in my travels) this sort of thing just looks like the toughest kid on the block flexing his muscles.

I'd like to think that if there were good solutions to the problems of evil and human suffering, we would have already implemented them. Which means we're choosing from a bunch of poor choices. Yet I think, with so much of the world skeptical of our motives and our methods, America's efforts to wage war for humanitarian ends will never work out as neatly and as happily as we hope.

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