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What’s Missing From Walzer’s Critique of Libya Intervention? Just War Theory

There was a curious omission from one of the latest critiques of American intervention in the conflict Libya. Scholar Michael Walzer weighed in today at the New Republic with a piece denouncing President Obama’s decision, saying “there are so many things wrong with the Libyan intervention that it is hard to know where to begin.” Walzer is unhappy about the lack of a clear purpose to the U.S. move, the lack of Arab support, and the lack of support from most of the non-Western countries in the United Nations.

These are fair points but neither go to whether or not the intervention is the right thing to do, which is — given Walzer’s deserved reputation as a leading authority on which wars are just and which are unjust — somewhat surprising. Instead, he merely states that the war would be justified if it were “a humanitarian intervention to stop a massacre” on the scale of the genocide in Rwanda or Darfur. But since the situation in Libya is not, according to Walzer, a potential massacre, the decision to intervene is mistaken.

But Walzer’s sanguine prediction that a Qaddafi victory would result in “cruel repression” but nothing more than that is hardly authoritative. The need for foreign intervention became manifest not because Qaddafi might hold onto power but because the only way he could do is by employing his air force and other sophisticated weapons against civilians in those areas where the revolt had spread. A failure to ground his air force would have meant a massacre. Indeed, the memory of Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Shiites in southern Iraq with helicopter gunships while American troops stood by should have been on everyone’s mind lately.

Walzer is right that it is unlikely a genocidal catastrophe such as Rwanda or Darfur was in the cards. But is he really arguing that several hundred thousands must die before the world should stir? Is the clear potential for tens of thousands of innocents cut down by a mad dictator beneath our attention aside from, as Walzer asserts, the obligation to facilitate the flight of refugees?

There is an argument to be made for the United States to stay out of foreign conflicts. Neo-isolationists on the left and right have criticized Obama on Libya simply because they oppose a strong American presence on the world stage and are uncomfortable with humanitarian interventions under virtually any circumstance. But this is not the sort of tack that we expect from a man who has spent so much of his scholarly and writing life attempting to define both just wars and permissible conduct on the part of those who fight wars.

From an ethical point of view, the question is whether the intervention in Libya constitutes the sort of just war that Walzer has theorized about. It is not so much whether the United States has enough allies in this fight or even whether the president will follow through, as he must, with his demand that Qaddafi step down. Those are, after all, practical questions of how the war should be fought, not whether it should be fought at all.

Given the deadly nature of the Qaddafi regime, its willingness to use massive lethal force against civilians, and its long history of the use of terror (a practice that we might expect to see revived in the event of Qadaffi’s survival), the threshold for a just war has been passed with flying colors in Libya. Michael Walzer may be opposed to intervention in Libya for various reasons. But he owes his readers the acknowledgement that, despite his misgivings about the decision, the United States and its allies are fighting a just war against Qadaffi.