Moammar Gadhafi is a tyrant. Few would regret his departure from the world scene. He is the Saddam Hussein of North Africa, perpetuated in power by his own treachery and self-absorption. That is not debatable.
The fledgling revolt of many Libyans, nearing defeat in recent days, seemed tragic. Without the intervention of the international community, their massacre seemed as certain as Gadhafi's willingness to sacrifice them. That also is not debatable.
Americans love it when people struggle for freedom. It's in our "DNA" as a people. It's what we did. Shortly after our success, we applauded the French Revolution and have generally been for the underdog for the past two hundred years, at least when the underdog was trying to become "free." There's not much debate about that either.
There are two questions, however, that we should debate: Has it become too easy for America to go to war, and what justifies America going to war? In the past twenty years, we have committed American forces in armed conflicts is Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. In all of these cases, we initially saw our involvement as short-term. We believed we could limit the length and costs. Yet two of those wars have lasted longer than any others in American history, and one (which former Vice-President Cheney predicted would be a "cake walk") has already cost over $1 trillion.
Several things make it "easy" to go to war. Images that flood our screens today, from technology as varied as satellites and cell phones, create strong and powerful pictures that tear at our emotions and that simply did not exist before the computer age. The world is not only smaller; it is more vivid and immediate and thus harder to ignore. Military technology (which we possess and our enemies do not) -- from cruise missiles to Predator drones -- makes it possible to wage war from a distance, using fewer people and thus causing fewer American casualties. Deficit financing has enabled us to go to war without much debate about how to pay for it, and the aversion to any increase in taxes has allowed us to stay at war without much debate about how to pay for it either. An all-volunteer force, certainly more professional than any we ever had, has enabled us to fight without the massive disruption to the lives of most young people attendant upon a military draft. It has also meant a Congress in which few members have worn the uniform and few have children who now do so. Still further, the rapidity with which most of our modern wars begin (one month after 9/11 for Afghanistan; one week after Gadhafi's counter-attack against the rebels) means that the power of making war resides increasingly with the president. Whether or not we view this as essential in a rapid-response world, it means that the deliberation which should proceed taking the nation to war gets less time and attention, often coming after war begins, which is of course not ideal for ensuring the public support needed to sustain war. Indeed, we don't call it "going to war" anymore, since technically only Congress has the power to declare war.
The ease of going to war is not used here as an argument against doing so. It is used as an argument for a clearer national conversation on what justifies such action. Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, said that America should be guided in its international affairs solely by "duty and interest." That's not a bad place to begin the conversation.
What is our duty to the rest of the world? President Obama, in justifying military action in Libya, said: "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy." But there are many tyrants in the world. Is American military power now to be available for use against any tyrant? The United States has not historically wanted to be the world's police force.
What is our interest in Libya? In the same remarks on the day hostilities began, the President said: "We are answering the calls of a threatened people and we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world." His remarks ended there, so what exactly those interests are he did not say. This does not mean he has not thought about it. But it is important that we think about it.
A conclusion we might draw is that it is now U.S. policy to participate with international coalitions to take military action against leaders who, at the point of a gun, deny democracy and human rights to their own people. If this is our definition of "duty and interest," it ought to be subject to more debate than it is receiving. Admittedly, the current commitment of U.S. forces in Libya seems to be meeting with bipartisan approval and public sanction, but popular opinion does not substitute for earnest debate. There was strong support for going into Afghanistan and Iraq as well. But public support is a fickle thing, as "duty and interest" tend to get redefined when they are glossed over at the start of wars.
Another conclusion we might draw is that the Administration has decided that the stable progression toward democracy in North Africa and the Middle East is in the interest of the United States, but the President did not say this, nor did he make the case that the use of armed force would get us closer to this goal. Does the Libyan opposition represent democracy?
If we are to have less time to decide to commit our forces overseas in the years ahead, we should take more time now to discuss and agree on what our duty is to the world and what national interests justify using our armed forces. To do less puts us at the mercy of events, of the tyrants of the world, whose behavior will always horrify us. Before we sacrifice one American life, we owe our men and women in arms -- and ourselves -- the assurance that we know why.