Shadow Government

Libya debate still could benefit from more rigor (updated)

UPDATE: The Libya debate just took a very serious turn. After weeks of equivocation, the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" dramatically alters the situation. The vote was not exactly a ringing endorsement of military action — two veto-wielding permanent members abstained, Russia and China, as did one of our closest NATO allies, ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

UPDATE: The Libya debate just took a very serious turn. After weeks of equivocation, the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing "all necessary measures" dramatically alters the situation. The vote was not exactly a ringing endorsement of military action — two veto-wielding permanent members abstained, Russia and China, as did one of our closest NATO allies, Germany. On the other hand, it passed and the resolution seems to open up a wider range of military action than the minimal "no-fly zone" that was the focus of international debate last week.

The resolution permits action, but of course it takes a coalition of the willing to actually enforce the resolution. According to reports, France and Britain are preparing to act, perhaps with some Arab partners. Will the United States join the posse?

If so, Obama has his work cut out for him. He will have to explain to the American public what the objectives are, what he plans to do, what he plans not to do, and why we should do it. Many people have been making this case in public in the last few weeks. None of them, however, were in the administration. On the contrary, the administration has pretty steadily resisted pressure for military action and talked down the very options that now, at the eleventh hour (and then some), seem imminent. If the administration has joined the hawks, Team Obama will have to answer all of the objections they themselves raised. And while they are doing so, they may also need to explain why they haven’t been preparing the American public for this forceful action. They will also discover that the other relevant branch of government, Congress, may wish to have a say. Remarkably, for all the focus on the international diplomacy, there has been rather little reporting on administration consultations with Congress, the sort that would lead to a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force.

The president is off to Rio de Janeiro for a vacation on the margins of an important summit meeting with a major hemispheric partner. The summit is poorly timed but understandable; the vacation even more poorly timed, and harder to explain if we are about to do what Obama’s own secretary of defense described as "an attack on Libya." Until now, the president has been somewhat removed from the center of action on Libya. If U.S. forces are supporting an attack on Libya, he won’t be able to stay removed — he will be in the very center of it, even from the beaches of Rio.


EARLIER: My earlier call for more rigor in the Libya debate has provoked a response that perplexes me. Ross Douthat has a curious post, in which he calls my point of view "deeply mistaken." But when he sketches out his own view it sounds fully consonant with what I was arguing. Either we are deeply mistaken together, or one of us is misunderstanding the other. Either way, it is worth a response; not simply because Douthat is a thoughtful observer who has earned the right to be taken seriously but because the issues at stake go to the heart of much of the current debate over whether or not to intervene militarily in Libya (or elsewhere).

Here is where the matter began. I argued that the debate over intervention was sloppy because critics of the military option: (1) used bogus arguments about alleged "unilateralism" in the way the United States confronted Iraq; (2) asked "what if" questions of interventionists and ignored the obvious "what if" questions of their own preferred policy; and (3) used a moral calculus that focused entirely on the costs of action and ignored the costs of inaction.

Douthat was bestirred by my third point, specifically this quote:

Military action makes us morally responsible but military inaction allows us to avoid moral responsibility. Many defenders of military inaction reach their point of view by way of a skewed cost-benefit calculation that assumes the worst about military action and assumes the best about inaction. Every untoward development that happens or is speculated to happen after military intervention is blamed on the intervener, but every untoward development that happens in the absence of military intervention is left out of the calculus entirely. Thus ideologues who bemoan American "militarism" count up all of the casualties in wars the U.S. intervened in and utterly disregard all of the casualties in conflicts the U.S. let fester without acting.

My point was and is that we need a complete calculus (or as complete as we could get it when dealing with uncertainties) in which the likely costs and benefits of action were compared to the likely costs and benefits of inaction.

I do not say that the calculus demands a one-to-one equivalence in which the body count of action is stacked up against the body count of inaction, death for death. I do not propose a ratio at all, leaving open the possibility that some might count "our" dead more precious than "their" dead, or weigh the dead caused by action more heavily than the dead caused by inaction. All I claimed was that it should not be left out of the equation entirely.

I do not say that we are as responsible for the deaths that result from our inaction as we are for the deaths that result from our action. All I claim is that inaction that leads to predictable results — say inaction that is followed by 800,000 Rwandan dead or inaction that is followed by 6 million Congolese war victims — warrant some consideration in the cost-benefit equation and moral calculus.

Here is Douthat’s assessment:

Does anyone seriously think that the United States bears just as much responsibility for the horrors of the Congolese civil war (which we "let fester," in Feaver’s phrase) as it does for the post-invasion violence in Iraq? As much responsibility for the casualties in, say, the various India-Pakistan wars as for the casualties in our own war in Vietnam? As much responsibility for the deaths in Europe from 1914 to 1917 as for the deaths in the Philippines during our occupation of those islands? We may bear a share of responsibility for casualties that result from our inaction rather than our actions, but the two ledgers aren’t comparable.

I did not say they were comparable, but I would say they are compare-able (that is, one can weigh them against each other in a comprehensive cost-benefit calculus). Perhaps we should weight the costs that arise after our action more heavily than the costs that arise after our inaction, as Douthat calls for, but we shouldn’t ignore the latter altogether. That was my point and Douthat seems to agree because he concedes that we should assess those costs, only discount them a bit.

I can live with a discount factor. Indeed, I would propose an additional refinement to what Douthat suggested: We should deeply discount costs that arise after U.S. inaction when U.S. options for action were so implausible and so unlikely to affect the outcome one way or the other that inaction was almost irrelevant. To pick a relatively easy illustration from the distant past, the United States was masterfully inactive during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870; I don’t think it makes much sense to attribute the death and destruction that resulted (let alone the deep cause of World War I, German unification and the "German Problem") as the "costs of U.S. inaction." By contrast, U.S. inaction does seem especially relevant in the current Libyan case and so the discount rate should be different (and rather less favorable to the advocates of inaction than in the historical hypothetical of the Franco-Prussian War). There is no serious military analyst who would say that the United States lacks plausible options for action or is incapable of affecting the outcome. At most they can say that the options are not worth the cost. Fine, let’s count all of the costs.

But while we are thinking about responsibility for costs, let’s be more rigorous still. Please let us not indulge a monstrous casuistry — one that I am confident Douthat himself would reject — that says the U.S. is to blame for all the costs of action (or inaction). Yes, we should count those costs before acting (or not acting) and let those assessed costs shape our calculation of whether it is worth intervening, but we must assign moral responsibility for them where it is due: on the perpetrators. The United States is neither solely nor wholly morally responsible for all of the Iraqi deaths that happened since our 2003 invasion. The thousands upon thousands of Iraqis killed by al Qaeda in Iraq, the rogue Jaish al Mahdi units, and other terrorist organizations stain the moral ledger of the terrorists, not the United States. In the same way, Gaddafi is morally culpable for the deaths he is racking up now, not the Obama Administration, even though the Obama Administration could surely have stopped him earlier (and may even, at the eleventh hour, still try to do.

Yet it is wrong to leave those costs out of the calculus altogether and, to borrow a phrase from Douthat, I think this is intuitively obvious when one starts to consider real world examples. Does anyone seriously think that if Qaddafi prevails in Libya and the United States has done nothing more than it has already done and the streets of Benghazi are dripping with blood that we can simply say, as Douthat starts to say, "the United States is not the government of North Africa, and Barack Obama is not the president of Libya." No, even Douthat can’t let that be the end of the matter. Instead, he also says: 

We have obligations in the region, certainly — treaty obligations, strategic obligations, and yes, moral obligations as well. But America’s leaders are not directly responsible for governing any country besides their own, which means that almost by definition, they/we bear less responsibility for tragedies that result from our staying out of foreign conflicts than for tragedies that flow from our attempts at intervention.

Less. But not zero. That’s my point. So let’s have some rigorous analysis from the non-interventionists, one that seriously weighs the costs of inaction as well as the costs of action. Let them be explicit and precise about whatever discount rate they wish to use to privilege inaction. But please don’t try to pretend that inaction is a cost-free cakewalk.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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