Commentary Magazine


Do We Intervene in Libya? The Answer Is Never a Simple One.

In his column today, George Will — a skeptic concerning American intervention in Libya — asks a series of questions he says all interventionists should answer, including whether Libya is a vital national interest; will a no-fly zone be effective or decisive; and if grounding Colonel Qaddafi’s aircraft is a humanitarian imperative, why isn’t protecting his enemies from ground attacks?

Those questions are legitimate ones. There are counter-arguments to Will’s position, of course, including ones offered up by Bret Stephens and James Thomas and Zachary Cooper.

In any event, one thing that strikes me is that one’s views on American military intervention often depend on the model to which one looks. In modern times, is it Grenada, Panama, Sierra Leone, the first Gulf War, Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Beirut, or Libya (President Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 in response to the bombing of the La Belle discothèque in West Berlin)?

George Will is himself an interesting case study. In 2002, he was a strong supporter for intervening in Iraq, telling Charlie Rose on October 8, 2002, that

we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job.

Will added, “You know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.”

Mr. Will has clearly changed his views in fairly fundamental ways in the aftermath of Iraq. That’s fine; he would probably argue that he’s adjusted his outlook in light of new evidence and circumstances. My point is that the historical examples most of us look to often reaffirm our predispositions rather than shape our views. We are inclined to act one way or the other based probably on a complicated set of reasons we’re not even fully aware of. George Will was in favor of intervention in Iraq in 2002, so to support his stance, he cited Grenada, Panama, and Serbia as successes. He’s against intervening in Libya in 2011, so he invokes mission creep, Somalia, “Black Hawk Down,” and the complexity of Libya’s tribal society.

The truth is that no model is precise, and some can be downright misleading. Every circumstance is different. No one can anticipate all the contingencies. Sometimes interventions are easier than one imagines, and sometimes they are harder. And presidents and their advisers are like everyone else; they have biases in one direction or another. But they know, or at least they should know, that their actions can trigger a chain reaction that is often beyond their ability to anticipate or control. We often live in times of mist and shadows, yet decisions must still be made.

Do we intervene in Libya or not? The answer is never as simple as it appears.