Walt on wars of whimsy
Steve Walt has returned from vacation amped up about the folly of the Libya campaign. Indeed, he’s created a whole new category for this kind of conflict, a "war of whim." It’s not that the leaders who start these wars can’t come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, ...
Steve Walt has returned from vacation amped up about the folly of the Libya campaign. Indeed, he's created a whole new category for this kind of conflict, a "war of whim."
Steve Walt has returned from vacation amped up about the folly of the Libya campaign. Indeed, he’s created a whole new category for this kind of conflict, a "war of whim."
It’s not that the leaders who start these wars can’t come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, and a powerful state can always devise a rationale for using force. And proponents may even believe it. But the dictionary defines whim as a "sudden or capricious idea, a fancy." A "war of whim" is just that: a war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification, and without thinking through the consequences if one’s initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out. Wars of whim aren’t likely to bankrupt a nation by themselves, or even lead to major strategic reversals. But they are yet another distraction, at a time when world leaders ought to focusing laser-like on a very small number of Very Big Issues (like the economy).
So maybe that’s the silver lining: If we’re not paying much attention to Libya anymore, doesn’t that tell us something about its real importance?
I’m confused. If leaders and the informed public aren’t paying much attention to Libya — the underlying assumption for Walt’s post — doesn’t that mean it’s not much of a distraction from the Very Big Issues?
But let’s leave that aside. The deeper problem with Walt’s standard for intervention is that it all but prohibits any rapid military response to an evolving crisis — strategic or humanitarian. Of course everyone would like as much time as possible to consider the pros and cons of an intervention. But policymakers watching events unfold in Libya faced a brutal choice: intervene quickly or acquiesce to the defeat of Libya’s rebels. Walt is skeptical that a massacre was imminent. He clearly doubts that intervention had an effect on the course of the Arab Spring. Fair enough. But policymakers faced a difficult choice under the intense pressure of events. Characterizing their decision as whimsical is beyond glib.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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