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A Smarter Intervention Debate

What lessons have liberals learned from recent interventions? The answer isn’t clear—but it will matter when the next crisis hits.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Foreign PolicyHumanitarian InterventionLibyaWar

When it registers in national politics at all, the conversation around intervention is marked by drastic swings between overconfidence and resignation. Right now, the latter dominates: there’s no consensus on goals, much less the means of achieving them. When it comes to places like Libya or Syria, we seem to have no idea how to fix the problems, or even agree that they ought to be our concern in the first place. The best it seems possible to wish for, under such circumstances, is a slightly better conversation, to help us think coherently about first principles and make us better prepared for the inevitable next disaster.

In that spirit, there’s a lot to like about Shadi Hamid’s recent argument about Libya, published in Vox with the intentionally provocative headline “Everyone says the Libya intervention was a failure. They’re wrong.” Hamid’s point rests on a counterfactual that he deems reasonably definite, as these things go: “The country is better off today than it would have been had the international community allowed dictator Muammar Qaddafi to continue his rampage across the country.”

Why? Because Qaddafi was promising, on the eve of intervention, that mass killings were on the horizon, and there were signs he was already carrying them out when NATO stepped in. And because—assuming Qaddafi was determined to continue the killings—Libya was positioned to spiral into “a Syria-like situation of indefinite, intensifying violence,” with the dictator at war against an opposition too strong to be quickly crushed, but too weak to prevail.

Of course, the weakness of the opposition, combined with Qaddafi’s systematic undermining of civil society, meant that the intervening Western countries should not have been surprised by the subsequent instability. (It’s truly astonishing, given recent history, that post-regime planning was given such short shrift.) Even so, insists Hamid, the current civil war in Libya is not obviously the result of NATO’s intervention (most than two years passed between the end of operations and the outbreak of today’s violence), and even so, the combined casualties of NATO’s intervention and the ongoing civil war are many times lower than the death toll of about 400,000 in Syria. NATO’s intervention may have averted both mass killings and a Syria-like war—even if the results still fall short of a stable, functioning state.

Hamid singles out critics for whom Libya’s current chaos has inspired retrospective opposition, claiming that they are seeking an unattainable certainty that things will turn out well before supporting actions that are already, in principle, the right thing to do (like stopping a genocide). But to me, Hamid doesn’t so much reject this emphasis on consequences so much as he turns it back on critics: his suggestion is not exactly that we shouldn’t think about consequences, but rather that the establishment of a stable government is simply the wrong consequence to look for. A better comparison, Hamid says, is the outcome that would likely have resulted in the absence of an intervention.

This is the starting point for a better conversation about when interventions should be considered and how they should be assessed. Right now, the political conversation around them is frequently muddled. As Nakul Krishna noted in 2012, “Faced with the evidence of a decade of interventions gone wrong, the new discourse threatens to slide into a weary quietism, an amoral cynicism.” Surely some confusion can be attributed to a stubborn sanguinity about American power—making us too eager to intervene, then too impatient for quick and perfect results, resulting predictably in the opposite of our initial overconfidence: an exaggerated sense of impotence and political fatalism.

Undoubtedly the truth is somewhere in between these extremes. Erratic swings between brash idealism and chastened resignation are a recipe not only for dead-end arguments, but for an inconsistent and unsatisfying policy approach. And on the left, anyway, the current election doesn’t actually offer an option for principled anti-interventionists: critical though Bernie Sanders has been of Hillary Clinton’s relative hawkishness, he has couched his arguments in largely practical terms, such as charging Clinton with a failure to plan for a post-Qaddafi Libya. This is different from arguing that the U.S. had no business intervening in the first place (and is, perhaps, in tension with his call shortly after NATO’s Libya intervention for the U.S. to “get out as soon as we possibly can.”) In other words, calculations about intervention will likely face the next president, regardless of which Democrat is on the ticket in November. If one of them wins, foreign policy will be a key realm where their power is broadly immune to GOP obstruction. It’s in our interest to start having a smarter debate before the next crisis hits.

Read more about Foreign PolicyHumanitarian InterventionLibyaWar

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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