photo credit: John Tann
At the Debate Annex, in response to my criticism of Obama for not clearing our war in Libya with Congress, Daran asks a fair question:
Setting aside the Constitutionality issue, how do you feel about the Nato action overall? Your first post was strongly opposed. But subsequently you appeared to equivocate (as did/do I).
I just don’t think that force of war — which is what NATO is using — is a reliable tool for achieving humanitarian goals. People say “we’re going to use war to achieve humanitarian goal X,” but the truth is, they have NO idea if they’re actually going to succeed. (Unless goal X is “cause a great deal of destruction and death,” in which case they can be fairly certain of success, but I think their claim to a humanitarian intent would be significantly weakened.)
When it comes to humanitarian goals, war is an extremely chancy tool. The people who claim that they know what they’re doing, and they’re going to be successful at using warfare as a humanitarian tool to achieve humanitarian goals without enormous bloodshed — I think those people are either self-deceiving, or simply liars. Even if they’re entirely sincere, the chances of not really achieving humanitarian ends, or of achieving them only at inhumane costs, are very high.
It’s a little like seeing a deadly poisonous wasp buzzing a few inches from a little child’s eye, while the child is in a big crowd of children. Sure, I could draw my handgun and shoot the wasp to prevent it from stinging the child to death. But the odds of that plan actually working are small, and the odds of a tragic unintended result are unacceptably high.
So even if someone says to me, “don’t you care if a small child gets stung to death,” I’m against that plan. Even if the plan works, and in retrospect people are saying “see, you were wrong to disagree,” I’m against that plan.
So, to answer Daran’s question, I’m back to being opposed.
UPDATE: See Daran’s response to me here.
An obvious counterargument is that whether or not you care if the child is stung to death, in the end, as you did nothing, the child is dead.
Humanitarian wars may be akin to performing surgery wth a chainsaw. However, sometimes a chainsaw is all you have, or the other options may wind up to be even worse (the main alternative to military intervention is sanctions, but even if they are effective – and they often aren’t – they often aren’t exactly bloodless in cases like this and the final death toll may well be worse).
Eyal, I don’t think a policy of swinging chainsaws around when we don’t absolutely have to swing chainsaws around — “chainsaws of choice,” you might say — is going to save more lives, in the long run.
It’s a mistake to imagine that the US, or NATO, has the power to solve every problem in the world. Just because there is something horrible happening somewhere does not, in and of itself, establish that any intervention at all will create an improvement and is a good idea.
It’s also a mistake to imagine that we don’t face opportunity costs. The money and effort spent on wars is money and effort that could otherwise be going elsewhere. The money spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya — or even a small portion of that money — could potentially do a lot more good elsewhere in the world, in situations that are amenable to non-military intervention.
The money spent on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya — or even a small portion of that money — could potentially do a lot more good elsewhere in the world
Especially given that we have documented evidence that the post-war Iraq was more dangerous than pre-war, even with Hussein. To my knowledge, similar studies have not been done in Afghanistan, but maternal mortality, at least, has gone through the roof. As for Libya, as far as I can tell, Ted Rall has it right: the people we’re supporting are very similar ideologically to those who we funded to help stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan…who later helped form al Qaeda and the Taliban. This is unlikely to end well.
It’s more like this:
You see a huge wasp nest drop into the middle of a crowd of kids. You’ve got an untested, somewhat toxic, anti-wasp agent. You don’t know its full effect on humans.
If you toss in the agent, it will probably kill the wasps, but it will also probably kill some of the kids. You don’t know how many. Some of the kids will be fine and some will suffer but not die; you don’t know how many will be affected or how bad the effect will be.
If you don’t toss it in there, the wasp stings will also kill some of the kids. Some of the kids will run away and some will get stung but not die; you don’t know how many will be stung or how bad the effect will be. You also fear (but don’t know for sure) that some of the wasps will come for you.
Decide quickly! The longer you wait to make the decision, the more agent you’d probably have to use to kill the wasps. That increases the risk of using it. And the longer you wait to make the decision, the more kids will be killed by the wasps while you wait. So if you’re going to use the agent efficiently, you need to use it soon.
It’s not as simple as you make it.
If you toss in the agent, it will probably kill the wasps,
I kind of like your analogy. But I don’t think you’ve taken it far enough. Because we don’t even really know if it will kill the “wasps”. Many times “successful” regime changing wars end with many of the same people still in charge after they are over. Or people with similar beliefs and attitudes. So it may be that all your agent will do is kill some of the kids. Doesn’t that make the decision so much easier?
I don’t think that it’s possible to convert something as complex as “should we start a war” into an easy analogy, so I don’t think mine is anywhere near perfect. My analogy was mainly put out there to demonstrate that Amp’s was (in my view) even more problematic.
I did say “probably…”
It may ALSO be that all the agent will do is kill some of the wasps. Or that it will kill almost all of the wasps, while harming one kid, thus saving the other 90% of the kids. Or….
So no, the decision doesn’t get easier merely because you can list a bad outcome as possible. There are also good possible outcomes to balance it.
And although I’m beginning to regret diving into the wasp’s nest analogy at all, I’ll expand on the analogy a bit:
Now your kids are close to the fracas. If you don’t try to kill the wasps, you think that it’s likely they’ll come closer to you and bite your own kids. You firmly believe that your own kids will die–and, of course, you value them more highly than pretty much anyone else. There’s a chance, of course, that the agent will blow over and hit your kids. But the chances of your kids dying from the agent seem far less than them dying from the wasps.
I add this to note that protectionism is normal and rampant (not that you didn’t know it, of course, but it belongs in the discussion.) The leaders of any country (including but by no means limited to the US) are tasked with the role of protecting their citizens at the expense of others, with some consideration of allies.
And that has to be part of the calculus. Brutal though it is, there isn’t a leader in the world (or a parent, I suspect) who assigns the same value to every life out there. I have to admit that it’s so ingrained in politics that it’s hard to even really look at the analogy without it.
Here: There’s a 10% likelihood of an organization getting a nuclear weapon and setting it off in the US. It’d probably kill 100,000 people, possibly including you or me. If you knew that you could stop it with a war, how many people would you be justified in killing in order to do so?
And if the number isn’t zero, does it matter who you’re killing? Does it matter whether they’re in the U.S., or an allied country, or a neutral one, or a hostile one? Does it matter if they, personally, are hostile? Does it matter what decisions THEY would make if asked the same questions? I think it does, though I can’t easily explain why.
Also, the wasps are human beings.
A principle that I wholeheartedly agree with. In the case at hand we see the issue of going in half-cocked with no real plan.
An overall defeat of an armed opponent cannot be accomplished without ground troops. But we’ve already got ours committed elsewhere and any attempt to send ours in would have destroyed the Obama presidency. And our allies have gutted their military to pay for social programs and have neither the ability nor the will to do what they claimed they wanted to do.
Using an air war can reduce the ability of Quaddafi’s side to fight, but it leaves the ground open to whoever is best organized and willing to fight against him. Who’s that? We don’t even know. Is it worth American lives and money (not to mention Libyan lives) to depose Quaddafi and open the way for, say, the Muslim Brotherhood?
You can’t fight a war with one hand behind your back and expect anything good to come of it.
BTW – that precept above is as applicable to domestic social programs as it is to foreign policy. Would that the Obama administration would remember it in both cases.
I’d be interested in seeing what documentation you’re talking about.
It happened in 1998 in Serbia.
Now your kids are close to the fracas. If you don’t try to kill the wasps, you think that it’s likely they’ll come closer to you and bite your own kids. You firmly believe that your own kids will die–and, of course, you value them more highly than pretty much anyone else.
Oddly enough, something like that did happen to me once. A wasp landed on my allergic-to-everything kid. Maybe if I’d had insecticide in my hand, I would have squirted it on her. I didn’t. Instead I and her father (mostly her father, truth be told), encouraged her to stay still and let the wasp explore until it was ready to leave. When it did, we took her home, praised her courage, and discussed ways to prevent a similar event in the future. No one was stung, no one died. Not even the wasp.
No possible analogy to international politics there, of course.
Ron, you know which data I’m talking about, you just don’t know you know. The Roberts et al paper in Lancet. It’s been criticized and it’s true it’s clearly an underestimate, but it does give at least a general idea of the comparative death rates pre- and post-Hussein.
While it is rare I agree with RonF, I don’t think Serbia counts. Serbia was defeated in Kosovo by the combination of KLA ground forces and the NATO air assault. It wasn’t defeated overall (Milosevic remained in power). In order to conquer Kosovo, NATO had to work with the (mass murder committing, terroristic) KLA. Likewise, when Qaddafi falls, he will fall to Libyan rebel ground forces, not to the UN air war (well, I suppose if he is killed in a direct strike by the air forces, his government might fall, but it would still fall to Libyan rebels).