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War Number Three


Demonstrating the law of unintended consequences, the UN Security Council's Resolution 1973, adopted last Thursday evening, drew a swift response from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's government: it launched the battle for Benghazi. Further unintended consequences will surely follow the UN/NATO coalition's use of its brand new license for military force. But air power by itself may not amount to much except in a symbolic sense. Which begs the question, what next? Or, more properly, what's the goal?

Meanwhile, last Saturday Mr. Obama arrived in Brazil, keen to act presidential but unavailable for detailed questions about why the U.S. has gone to war or why the U.S. is playing an auxiliary role or why, even, he had neglected to seek congressional approval. To be honest, it looks like he's shirking difficult decisions.

With Mr. Obama or without him, capitalizing on Resolution 1973 may be more complicated than people imagine or than the pro-intervention crowd admits. Notwithstanding the impressive display in recent days of coalition firepower, the Resolution more-or-less explicitly cripples interventionist options. Although it authorizes "all necessary measures" in order "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack," immediately thereafter the text "exclud[es] a foreign occupation force of any form [my emphasis] on any part of Libyan territory." That effectively blocks the possibilities of escalation. Moreover, because the Resolution authorizes the use of military force only in the context of humanitarian protection, and because it also reaffirms a pre-existing UN arms embargo on Libya, if it were followed to the letter its actual military value to the insurgency, once airstrikes have run their course, may prove illusory.

As was to be expected, creative ways are energetically being sought to implement the Resolution more broadly. The die-hard interventionist Jamie Rubin, for example, has appeared on TV to explain that "occupation" is not synonymous with the use of ground forces who are not "occupiers"; thus the words "all necessary measures" means whatever coalition leaders want it to mean. A total military victory, Rubin assures us, is within our grasp.

Rubin, a former Biden staffer who served in Bill Clinton's State Department, played a key role in the saga of U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia. Evidently he's still got an appetite for disciplining weaker, recalcitrant nations. But what Rubin and many other interventionists fail to acknowledge is that the Security Council's vote of ten to zero included five critically important abstentions — Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Russia (40% of the population of the planet) — and, arguably, those five may not so carelessly abandon their efforts to restrain an ill-considered war. In effect, the interventionists are calling for a showdown in the UN Security Council at a time when the U.S. has insufficient muscle to tell those nations what to do and insufficient resources to offer them a satisfactory quid pro quo.

Contra Rubin's mischievous hermeneutical guidance, the compromises that already had to have been made to obtain Resolution 1973 gave it teeth mainly in the form of economic sanctions. But if the UN's actual consensus, its long term plan, is to topple the Gaddafi regime through economic pain then that plan depends on the ability of coalition forces to block Libyan oil smuggling for the foreseeable future. Enforcing economic sanctions involves an enormous amount of work, most of it behind the scenes. Eventually — eventually — a sanctions strategy may succeed but we can be certain that the burden of sanctions will fall immediately, and most harshly, upon ordinary Libyans. Whether they understand it's for their own good or instead rally to defend Gaddafi seems a fair question.

In any case, as Americans settle in for what could become another protracted war we must resist the temptation to rationalize indiscriminate punishment through recourse to magical thinking. As we lose sight of the facts the harder it gets to set coherent goals and find an exit.

Appeals to magical thinking, unfortunately, have already begun to appear. Last Friday evening, for example, on the PBS Newshour, Mark Shields said the following, worth quoting in full:

But this — this is a situation, we have no idea what the endgame is going to be. But I think the possibility, Jeffrey, of standing by while there was a humanitarian disaster that he was threatening, he, Gadhafi, was threatening, of the dimensions of — relatively speaking, of Rwanda, were just unacceptable, not simply to the United States, but to the international community.

To compare the scale of murder and mayhem in Libya to Rwanda would be insane, if taken literally. Shields knows, of course, this isn't a serious argument — he's merely hinting at the perspective of his sources. But who could possibly believe, and/or would say, such incredible things? It's proof of abysmal judgment on the part of at least several senior administration officials.

Having engaged in a new war, a third concurrent war, we should be exceedingly careful that our public debate not degenerate, ironically, into what Susan Rice might ascribe to Gaddafi: capricious delusions.