The Moral Dirtiness Of Libya

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 22 2011 @ 4:42pm

Will Wilkinson counters me:

[W]e obviously cannot (and therefore are not required morally to) intervene to prevent suffering and death everywhere. We have to pick our battles, so to speak. But then the argument for any particular instance of going big and then spending the next several decades putting Humpty together again requires a supporting argument that this is would be a relatively good use of our limited resources, if not the best use. I don’t believe I’ve heard any such argument, much less a persuasive version of it. Unless Mr Sullivan knows of one, I think he’s wrong to think non-intervention in Libya would have been “morally dirty”. Indeed, my suspicion is that awkwardly and apprehensively prolonging the Libyan civil war—which is the path we appear to be mission-creeping down—is not only the most strategically muddled but also the morally dirtiest of all our options.

I think we can now see that prolonging this civil war may actually have turned out to be morally dirtier than refusing to intervene. But Obama could not have known that at the time and given his choices, I think it’s fair to say he picked the less morally troubling but more politically foolish option. As for the question of whether it’s a fallacy to say that because you cannot intervene everywhere you should not intervene anywhere, I’d put it another way.

Once you have intervened in one situation, the question will inevitably emerge as to why you don’t in another close-to-equivalent situation. At some point, you’ll give in. And so the Libyan intervention marked a high water-mark – since Somalia – of purely humanitarian war. It lays down a marker which begs to be equaled or exceeded.

The lesson learned from Somalia, apparently, is never to let an American soldier go there. And so we send drones. Which, as David Ignatius notes, are arguably the most counter-productive weapon in the battle to win over Arab opinion that we may have. It may be that this escalation is the best option we currently have to keep the possibility of Qaddafi giving up alive, as Tom Ricks notes. I certainly hope so. But if drones don’t do it, what then?

The problem with some clear moral choices to intervene is that they lead to far muddier, sometimes counter-productive and immoral choices later.