Tuesday, April 19, 2011

wars are always founded on untruth

Pushed into the background by the clamor of budget issues and other aspects of domestic politics-- you know, the sort of things a democratic polity can and should worry about-- the situation in Libya continues.

At this point, it's plainly true that the narrow conditions of military intervention as set out in the first hours of the war have been totally transgressed. The fact that this no-fly zone was much more than a no-fly zone was clear in a matter of days. The fact that this was not a conflict that would be resolved in "days, not weeks" was clear soon after. That regime change was in fact the principle goal of this was denied, then asserted with qualifiers, then essentially embraced without preconditions, although always with a weird, one-hand-tied-behind-the-back quality. Now, NATO military "advisors" are aiding the rebels, meaning that there are now boots on the ground (in addition to those of unaccountable CIA agents and lawless mercenaries), which I was told again and again would never happen. If you would like to argue that advisors couldn't possibly become fighters, I ask that you consider history.

Let's not reprosecute our role in this intervention for the time being. What I would like to point out is that once again, we have ample proof that absolutely any projection of military force in the contemporary age will be justified by statements from the government that simply are not true. This is true of Libya, it was true of Iraq, it was true of Afghanistan, and it will be true again in the future. I can't tell you how many people insisted to me that I was not confronting the conflict that was to come, but some hypothetical quagmire that simply wasn't going to happen. The problem there was typical: these people were taking the government's word for it when it came to war, when ample history should have cautioned them against doing so.

Why does this credulity persist in the face of so much evidence that these statements can't be trusted? Part of it, I think, has to do with the continued efforts by some to attach great significance to the distinction between dishonesty and mere incompetence. The line, though, is hard to draw when dealing with the murky world of military accountability, and I think a functioning democracy has to privilege outcomes over intents. One way or the other, the official statements of the government about military matters keep ending up wrong, wrong, wrong. If we're ever going to evolve beyond our current condition of jumping into military conflicts heedlessly, we've got to abandon the pretense that the government tells us the truth about warmaking.

As he so often does, Larison put it best:
Then again, the reason our debates are so poisonous and our nation so divided might have something to do with the existence of utterly unaccountable members of the political class that can launch such a war, suffer no real consequences, and then reliably expect to be defended as “decent” and “well-intentioned” people who made understandable mistakes.


aboulian said...

I agree, Larison has owned this topic.

NY Diletantte said...

I believe I commented on this site that Freddie's posts against Libya were generically anti-all-military-action rather than based on specific objections. I still stand by that.

Sure, the government's official statements about what Libya would involve may have been wrong. But I expect that to be the case with lots of official government statements. Most official statements regarding foreign policy are not very forthcoming: partly for diplomatic reasons & partly because political leaders figure they're best served by misleading their voters. Now, I'm not happy about that. But my tentative support for action in Libya did not depend on a reassurance that the US would do absolutely nothing beyond enforce a no-fly zone, nor did I much care what the exact US/NATO balance of control was.

To put this another way, I also assume that we are less likely to engage in humanitarian intervention if our strategic interests are not also involved: I don't like the fact that we will only act in a subset of humanitarian crises, but it's better than nothing. I opposed the Iraq action because it was purely about our strategic interests with no humanitarian crisis, it was obviously going to be costly and bloody, it was against intl. law, etc.

Show me that most Libyans don't want us there, and I'll change my mind about this issue; show me that there is a significant chance of large negative costs that outweighs likely benefits and I'll listen. But misleading administration statements in and of themselves aren't going to much matter because so few people assess conflicts based purely on those statements.

FDR said Lend/Lease wouldn't get the US into WWII - wrong, but I understand why he said so, and wouldn't change my opinion on WWII as a result. This isn't that clear cut. But that's why you have to look at the policy & not just what the government says about it.