Libya: A War to Enable Other Wars?

Libyan War = World Government? Not that there’s anything wrong with it: I’m not a foreign policy person, but the Libyan war sure seems like a huge step in the direction of world government. I’m amazed more right-wingers aren’t tearing their hair out about that aspect of it.

It’s one thing for a supra-national authority–the U.N.–to authorize a war against someone who has committed cross-border aggression, or who has repeatedly violated earlier U.N. resolutions left over from a previous war. That was the case with Saddam in 2002–in theory.*

It’s another to let the U.N. authorize a war on what Obama calls “humanitarian grounds“–whether it’s to stop actual killings or some less severe variety of  “human rights violation.”  These are concepts that are easily watered down to justify intervention–indeed, as Massimo Calabresi makes clear, they seem to have been watered down in this very case, where Gaddafi’s pending atrocities are hardly Rwanda-sized:

As it turns out, Gaddafi hasn’t done enough to justify humanitarian intervention—despite their rhetoric to the contrary, the administration and human rights organizations admit that reports of potential war crimes remain unconfirmed. Instead, interviews with senior administration officials show that the rehabilitators convinced Obama to go to war not just to prevent atrocities Gaddafi might (or might not) commit but also to bolster America’s ability to intervene elsewhere in the future.

A war to enable other wars. Woodrow Wilson, with a twist.

But not such a twist. Calabresi also makes it clear that another idea motivating Obama’s aides was the precedent of subordinating our use of force to limits set by an international body:

[O]bama not only went to war in part for an idea but is limiting the prosecution of the war in support of an idea as well. …

American policy is that Gaddafi should be removed from power. But Obama is interpreting U.N. resolution 1973, which authorized the intervention, to stop short of green-lighting Gaddafi’s removal. He believes it only allows military action to protect civilians. Therefore, he explained yesterday, “when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of U.N. Security Resolution 1973. That specifically talks about humanitarian efforts. And we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate.” So no targeting Gaddafi with smart bombs or ousting him with special forces.

The British apparently disagree with that interpretation, but for U.S. political purposes, what matters is that Obama is again acting to strengthen an idea: that international limits apply when one goes to war. [E.A.]

I’m not that troubled by either of these giant steps toward global governance–1) the ability of the world body to punish sovereign members, even if they don’t commit aggression against other members, just because it spots a potential big human rights violation; and 2) the ability of the world body to set rules the U.S. and its armed forces have to live by. We have a veto, after all. **

But I would think it would deeply trouble those mainstream, non-libertarian conservatives who’ve been fretting about world government for decades. Now that world government is finally arriving, only Ben Stein seems alarmed. (I may have missed others.) …

Update: Here is an alarmed libertarian.

More: Alert reader G.F. points me to National Review, where indeed you can find columnists fretting about Obama’s need for a multilateral endorsement from the “international community.” But what I’m talking about is something more than “multilateralism,” the need to obtain the approval of our allies before going to war. It is the creation of a near-formal global order with the U.N., or something like it, at the top–an order with some power to discipline subordinate members, of which the U.S. would be one.  This framework might be a handy thing to have as China and India come into their own. But conservatives have traditionally seen it as a dangerous diminution of American sovereignty.

It’s odd, I think, that Victor Davis Hanson outlines the seven (7) reasons for conservative opposition to the Libyan war  and doesn’t include this loss of sovereignty on the list. On the contrary, he criticizes the international coalition as a “multicultural fig leaf” to cover what is essentially a U.S. action. I’d thought conservatives would worry that it’s not a fig leaf. …


* —  The actual U.N resolution Bush obtained seemed to stop short of authorizing what we did, which is why (at the last minute) I didn’t support the war.

** –That doesn’t mean the Libyan War is a good idea–i.e. it doesn’t eliminate the prudential calculus of whether we will do more harm than good. In particular, to the extent this war is all about Bosnia, it may be based on an atypical model. In Bosnia, Slobodan Milosevic caved relatively quickly once he was  faced with a NATO military attack. (He did the same in Kosovo.) But Milosevic may be an outlier, cave-wise. Other autocratic bad guys, like Gaddafi, might not give up that easily–which changes the prudential calculus dramatically. It also increases the chance that any U.N.-imposed limitations Obama says he’ll live by (e.g., can’t target Gadaffi) will be a recipe for a bloody military stalemate.