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A War We Don't Need

Why is America intervening in a Libyan civil war?

David Harsanyi
March 23, 2011

Contrary to pithy bumper-sticker truisms, war is occasionally the answer. But can anyone explain why it's the answer now? At the moment, at least, polls insist that Americans are generally supportive of the United States' intervening in the civil war now raging in Libya, so someone must have an ironclad case.

President Barack Obama pins his rationale for intervention on a "humanitarian threat." A noble cause, no doubt. It's too bad that the folks in old Darfur missed out on those laser-guided missiles American and French fighter jets deploy to help avert massacre and man-made hunger. Maybe the victims didn't say please. Maybe the city dwellers of Pyongyang will be more convincing.

But this mission is creeping. Only days after suggesting the goal wasn't to remove Moammar Gadhafi, the White House now says the objective is regime change and a democratic system. If the past decade has taught us anything, it's that democracy projects tend to be expensive, open-ended investments. So when we're invested without there being any perceivable threat to the United States and without our having had a debate or congressional deliberation on the topic—by a president who sprang to national prominence voicing exactly those grievances—it seems that we'd be more outraged or inquisitive or, at least, cautious.

When queried about military interventionism (thanks to Gene Healy at The Washington Examiner for the tip) before the 2008 election, in fact, Obama explained, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

No, he didn't affix the phrase "unless we see humanitarian threats" or "except if the French and British find some good reason."

Then again, maybe one of the problems is we now place too much stock in world opinion when making decisions. Democrats were so intensely focused on the lack of international support in Iraq that perhaps Obama confuses global approval with our interests. What's worse than letting your "allies" or the United Nations decide whether you can go to war? It's letting them tell you that you should go to war.

And when is that, exactly? The president hasn't said. Yemeni forces have fired on protesters. Syrian forces have shot down protesters. Security forces in Tunisia have killed protesters. Why no help for those freedom fighters? What happens when Saudi Arabia royals are forced to use violence to hold power? Or when Iran cracks down on another popular uprising? An argument can be made that stopping the Iranian autocracy would be more consequential to stability and peace than removing Gadhafi—even if he is a few dirham short of a dinar.

Do we even know that the insurgency we propel to victory will be successful in liberalizing Libya? Foreign policy is infested with black swans. When The New York Times asked Paul Sullivan, a Libya expert at Georgetown University, what we should expect, he answered: "It is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer. It could be a very big surprise when Gadhafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with." Comforting, no?

Is Libya more vital to our national interest than Iran or North Korea or the Kurds of Turkey? After recent experiences with conflict and social engineering, how can anyone believe we can effectively institute democracy in the Middle East? And how can so many Americans be so sure we're doing the right thing?

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter at davidharsanyi. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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