Libya And The Trouble With Moralistic "Realism"

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 21, 2011

Libya And The Trouble With Moralistic "Realism"

Matthew Yglesias concedes my point that the efficacy of other humanitarian interventions has nothing to do with the merits of intervening in Libya. But he argues... well, I'm not sure how to characterize his point:

Chait says: “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.”...

I see no particular reason to think that Libya will have any impact on malaria funding, but do think the level of malaria funding is impacted over the long term by the existence of a substantial number of people (of which Chait is one) who seem to advocate for humanitarian goals in Africa if and only if those goals can be advanced through the use of military force to kill other Africans

I don't take this personally. In part that's because I subscribe to the Hyman Roth rule of punditry ("this is the business we've chosen.") In part it's because Yglesias has written before about his belief in the need for more highly charged moralistic language in politics, so I understand that his accusing me of harboring genocidal racist tendencies is just his way of trying to contribute to the public discourse.

To take his accusation at face value for a moment, here is what I take him to be saying: I am indifferent or perhaps mildly hostile to humanitarian goals, but I am positively enthusiastic about killing Africans. Therefore, I am willing to endorse a humanitarian proposal only if it comes added with the sweetener of killing Africans. I don't think that's an accurate description of my views. I do favor increased non-military humanitarian assistance. It's true I don't devote a lot of time to plunging into that issue, but, then, neither does Yglesias. Some writers like to push issues onto the agenda that aren't being discussed. I don't do that very well. I tend to jump into existing debates.

In any case, "killing Africans" is certainly not a condition for me to support a humanitarian intervention. Indeed, I had expressed the hope that possibly Qaddafi would back down on his plans to wipe out the opposition without shots being fired. Yglesias's argument would portray that scenario as being lose-lose for me, but I'm quite certain I would see it as win-win.

Second, Yglesias should really think more carefully about whether his policy of highly-charged moralistic language is helpful to his side of the debate. The situation is that ordinary Libyans grew tired of being governed by a borderline-insane kleptocratic dictator and started peacefully demonstrating against him. Then portions of the military defected. Then the borderline-insane dictator started using his vast store of plundered oil wealth to hire foreign mercenaries to kill his people. Then the people started pleading for foreign governments to help through arms shipments and a no-fly zone, while the borderline-insane dictator broadcast threats to commit mass slaughter.

There are various levels of commitment foreign governments might offer to these rebels -- a no-fly zone, a no-drive zone, arms shipments, or even (though nobody is advocating this) ground troops. Yglesias argues for watching them die, on the grounds that any help for the rebels could lead to a quagmire. I don't agree, though he does have good reasons for his position. But surely he understands that the emotional, moralistic pull of the arguments on my side are at least as strong. My side of the argument would probably lead to the killing of Qaddafi's mercenaries and loyal armed forces. His side would almost certainly lead to the massive slaughter of civilians and the ignoring of their pleas for even minimal support. I think he would do well to keep the argument focused on cold-blooded strategic grounds.

Third, it's more than a little odd that he's focusing on me, when the decision to intervene has been made by the U.S. government, the U.N. Security Council, and the Arab League. That's the position I'm endorsing. I'm not sure why Yglesias is so concerned with his belief that Jonathan Chait loves killing Africans when he's apparently faced with the more significant problem that Barack Obama loves killing Africans.

Sure, he could say that Obama is advocating for intervention in Libya but not stepped-up anti-malarial spending because he's merely working within the confines of the political system as it exists, and not making the perfect the enemy of the good. But that logic would apply to me as well, wouldn't it? I mean, clearly Obama has more influence over the shape of the U.S. political debate than I do.

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posted in: jonathan chait, libya, jonathan chait, matthew yglesias

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