Humor me for a moment.
Imagine that a friend from a foreign country told you that she wanted to become educated about the 2000 presidential election, its ensuing controversy, and the various consequences and permutations of that entire situation. How would you counsel her? Consider, all in all, the enormity of the question. We're talking about a long, involved, contentious discussion, upon which literally millions of words have be written then and since, concerning deeply intricate and controversial questions of electoral, legal, and political minutiae. You would perhaps set her loose with a few key texts to consider, point her in the direction of some experts, and give her a few ideas about where to focus her research. But you would do so with the understanding that her knowledge on the issue would always be partial and conditional, because the situation is so large and because there are certain elements of context and cultural understanding that only someone who had lived through it could understand. And I say this even though we have the distance of a decade and the resulting work of history to consider the question.
Now consider the average American's knowledge about Yemen. I mean, really.
What interventionists ask of us, constantly, is to be so informed, wise, judicious, and discriminating that we can understand the tangled morass of practical politics, in countries that are thousands of miles from our shores, with cultures that are almost entirely alien to ours, with populaces that don't speak our same native tongue. Feel comfortable with that? I assume that I know a lot more about Egypt or Yemen or Libya than the average American-- I would suggest that the average American almost certainly couldn't find these countries on a map, tell you what languages they speak in those countries, perhaps even on which continents they are found-- but the idea that I can have an informed opinion about the internal politics of these countries is absurd. Absurd. I followed the health care debate, an internal political affair with which I have a great personal stake and a keen personal interest, with something resembling obsession. I can hardly comprehend how many hundreds of thousands of words I read on the subject. And yet in some ways I know so little.
And yet I am supposed to have knowledge enough about the internal politics of Libya? Enough to wager the future of the lives of every citizen of that country? Enough to commit human lives and millions of dollars to engineer the outcome that I think we want in that foreign country? With the fog of war, the law of unintended consequences, and all of those unknown unknowns, floating around out there, waiting to entrap us?
This is folly. It is insanity. There are people within Libya that support Qaddafi. I don't understand them, but then I would be lying if I said that I understand the revolutionaries, really. I don't know who these loyalists are, how many of them there are, how valid their arguments are, how realistic an understanding of the situation they have. And neither do you. But we are in the process of deciding this issue for them, almost all internal political decisions for them, with our actions. Whatever vestiges of democracy and freedom may be preserved following this latest military adventure of ours, minority rights for these people will have been abridged, if a minority they are. That's to say nothing of what might come next, if the revolution succeeds; who will stand with whom, what reprisals will follow, what the tangled, shifting allegiances and temporary alliances will mean for these people and Libya on the whole. The future would be uncertain with or without the United States and its paper coalition raining ordinance down. But without us, we could be sure that whatever else was true, Libyans would be deciding the future of Libya. I would welcome that, as little as my opinion might mean.
A colossal, almost impossible arrogance underpins all interventionist logic. Beneath it all is a preening, self-satisfied belief in the interventionist's own brilliance and understanding. So I ask you, as an individual reader-- are you that wise? Are you that righteous? You understand so much? When was the last time you read a Libyan newspaper? Talked at length with a Libyan? A year ago, what did you know of Libya and its internal struggles? Because what you are saying, when you advocate intervention, is not only that you know so much that you can separate good from evil, but that your knowledge is so great and so benevolent that it is sufficient to completely undermine the self-determination of every man, woman, and child on Libyan soil. Make no mistake. That is your gamble. Those are the stakes you are wagering.
An understanding of the limits of ones own knowledge is the essence of wisdom, and modesty of goals compelled by limited knowledge the essence of good governance. Democracy requires-- requires-- demos, an informed, engaged populace. We have an enormously difficult time figuring out our domestic politics. This is asking too much, even without considering the imposition on the self-determination of Libya. Libya was for Libyans before you all trained your munificent gaze on it. Libya will be for Libyans long after you have turned your righteousness to the next news cycle. The question is what respect and what deference you will show to Libyans now, when absolutely every element of their future hangs in the balance.
Imagine back to Gore v. Bush again. We need not even really concern ourselves with the crazy counterfactual of some foreign country deciding that it was so wise, judicious, and magnanimous that it would sort out our internal conflict through military intervention. This country has no cultural memory whatsoever of foreign countries "intervening" within its borders, and no consideration of what it might be like to live under the constant threat that some superpower might decide to dictate its affairs. Such questions couldn't possibly be serious.