Clifford Orwin brings the rigor of a serious student of political philosophy to his observations on the humanitarian intervention by the United States et al. in Libya: “Humanitarian military interventions such as the one under way in Libya typically face just two main obstacles. The first is, they’re humanitarian. The second is, they’re military interventions.” He seems to think humanitarian military interventions suffer from an internal contradiction, like capitalism according to Marx.
Qaddafi “must go (Barack Obama has said so),” Professor Orwin exlains, “but it’s not the intervention’s aim to remove him. That aim is merely to stop him from doing such terrible things.” But there is a problem correlating means and ends:
That goal is a worthy one. But it can’t be achieved except by removing Col. Gadhafi. Leave a despot in power and you leave him with the power to oppress. And removing him may require more than your typical humanitarian intervention – a war fought at 15,000 feet, or with cruise missiles lobbed from distant warships, without too much danger to the intervenors. No despot has ever been deposed from 15,000 feet.
Because humanitarian intervention is War Lite, it often fails to evoke the resolve that “real” wars do. Yet, because it, too, is war, it, too, requires that resolve. Here, the historical record is clear: To be even partly successful, interventions must feature one determined power, militarily capable and clearly committed, on whom everyone else involved depends to do the heavy lifting. Examples are the U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Australian one in East Timor and the British one in Sierra Leone. International endorsement merely provided the fig leaf of non-politicality.
Professor Orwin contrasts these with “genuinely multilateral and, therefore, ineffectual interventions.” Which will the Libya venture be? Professor Orwin suggests the latter: “No one has strong enough reasons of their own for intervening in Libya. The strategic interests of each participant lies elsewhere[.]”
Professor Orwin does not take account of the possibility that old-fashioned pride or shame among one of the participants — the United States seems the most likely party — might kick in and convert the operation into “real” war. That would take an assessment of Obama that lies beyond the scope of Professor Orwin’s helpful column. Yet Professor Orwin does add this suggestive observation: “Mr. Obama needs to see that a president shouldn’t stake his political futures on vacillating allies to whom he’s offered the example of his own irresoluteness.”