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Necessary and Sufficient: The Case against Libyan Intervention is Philosophically Flawed

William A. Galston

Writing in 1977 on the topic of humanitarian interventions, a noted political philosopher had this to say:

“[W]hen a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the principle of self-determination might apply. … When a people are being massacred, we don’t require that they pass the test of self-help before coming to their aid. It is their very incapacity that draws us in. … Any state capable of stopping the slaughter has the right, at least, to try to do so.”

Returning to this topic in 1999, he observed that “the greatest danger most people face in the world today comes from their own states, and the chief dilemma of international politics is whether people in danger should be rescued by military forces from the outside.” The problem, he argued, is not that individual states are prone to engage in such interventions, but the reverse: There have been “a lot of unjustified refusals to intervene.” It is, he said, “more this neglect of intervention [by individual nations] than any resort to it that leads people to look for a better, more reliable, form of agency.” And he offered a number of reasons why humanitarian interventions conducted under U.N. auspices might well meet this standard.

I agree with this distinguished scholar, who is (as you may have guessed) Michael Walzer. And that is why I disagree with his recent critique for TNR of our intervention in Libya.

Walzer begins his case against the administration with three prudential points. First, it’s unclear what the purpose of the intervention is, and therefore what the endgame might be. Second, the attack lacks significant Arab support. And third, technical passage of the enabling resolution in the U.N. Security Council should not obscure the breadth of international opposition, which includes not only the usual suspects (Russia and China) but also an important ally (Germany) and two of the most significant rising democracies (India and Brazil).

I could quibble with each of these propositions, but, as Walzer and I agree, that would divert us from the core issue. As he says, “[n]one of this would matter if this were a humanitarian intervention to stop a massacre.” But, he contends, “that is not what’s happening in Libya today.” That depends on what he means by “stop.” As the revolution faltered and government forces surged east, Qaddafi made a blood-curdling speech about the fate that awaited the residents of Benghazi. His threat to hunt them down “alley by alley” has been set to music and has become his supporters’ unofficial anthem.

On any impartial global index of leaders’ veracity and trustworthiness, Qaddafi would rank near the bottom. But in matters of organized brutality, there’s every reason to take him at his word. At the very least, there’s a very real possibility of mass reprisals and killings that would dwarf the slaughter at Srebrenica. That brings us to the nub of the matter: Were we required to wait until the slaughter began in order to “stop” it, or are we allowed to intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster that is probable but not absolutely certain? The example of Rwanda suggests that if outside parties wait until the murder begins, it may be too late to halt it before many thousands have died. I don’t understand the basis for Walzer’s conclusion that unlike Rwanda, the threat to innocent life in Libya is not “extreme” enough to justify we what are doing.

All things considered, then, there is good reason why the impending fall of Benghazi moved President Obama to act. Bill Clinton has stated more than once that his failure to intervene in Rwanda was—morally and humanly speaking—the worst decision of his presidency. I agree. If I had been sitting where Obama was sitting last week, I would have acted as he did to prevent what could have been a similar stain on my administration. To be sure, there’s a chance that this wouldn’t have happened, even if we hadn’t intervened. But would we have been morally justified in taking that chance?

Yes, there are costs and risks. But let me use a philosopher’s example to clarify the issue. Suppose you’re a skilled swimmer walking along a beach. You hear a cry for assistance and observe someone struggling in the water a hundred feet offshore. Although it’s highly likely that you can bring the endangered swimmer safely to shore, there’s a small chance that you can’t, and a smaller but not negligible threat to your own safety. You also know that no one else can act with equal odds of success. Would it have been right to walk on by?

Since Kant, we have been familiar with the proposition that “ought implies can.” But in some circumstances, the reverse also holds: “can implies ought.” Our massive, ongoing investment in military capacity has a range of consequences for defense and diplomacy. It also has moral consequences. Because we can act in ways that others can’t, we are not as free as they are to ignore threats that we have the power to abate.

Having said this, let me grant a point Walzer rightly makes: Humanitarian protection is one thing, regime change quite another. This is a distinction that Obama also makes. No doubt his ringing and (many believe) unwise declaration that Qaddafi must go has muddied the waters. But while it may be complicated to say that our military intervention is bounded by the requirements of civilian protection and that we will use non-military means to bring about Qaddafi’s fall, it is not on its face incoherent.

Let me grant, as well, that the endgame is murky at best. There’s a non-trivial possibility that Qaddafi will be able to hang on to power in a substantial part of Libya. If so, we and our allies may have committed ourselves to protecting “Benghazistan” against retribution for the indefinite future. We’ve seen that movie before. Let’s hope this one ends better.

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