The Libya Question Is Only About Libya

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 18, 2011

The Libya Question Is Only About Libya

There's an argument against intervention in Libya that I keep seeing over and over. Here, for instance, is Andrew Sullivan:

There are, it appears, only two reasons the US is going to war, without any Congressional vote, or any real public debate. The first is that the US cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place. Yet we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly - if less noisily - what Qaddafi is doing. Obama made no attempt to reconcile these inconsistencies because, one suspects, there is no rational reconciliation to be made. 

And here's Ezra Klein:

[C]onsider Obama’s remarks. “Left unchecked,” he said, “we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die.” Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could due to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it's not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

Why not intervene in Burma or Yemen or elsewhere? I would say the answer is prudential: for various political, geographic, and military reasons, the United States has the chance to prevent slaughter in Libya at reasonable cost, and does not have the chance to do so in Burma.

But suppose there's no answer whatsoever. Does it matter? If it were the 1990s, and the Clinton administration were contemplating an expansion of children's health insurance, would it be important to determine exactly why we're covering uninsured children but not uninsured adults? No. The question is whether this particular policy intervention is likely to succeed or fail.

Now, I think there are very reasonable arguments to suggest that the operation in Libya could devolve into a quagmire, fail to achieve its objections, or achieve them at unacceptable cost. And, of course, some people -- not Sullivan or Klein -- think the U.S. has no right to intervene in places like Libya. But that's the question. The question of whether or not we ought to intervene in some other country, or in some other way, is an important foreign policy issue, but not an argument against intervention in Libya.

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posted in: jonathan chait, bahrain, burma, congo, libya, yemen, andrew sullivan, ezra klein

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