No Good Options on Libya

I think that the US and the rest of the world are probably doing about as well as can be expected with Libya. There is no unconditionally correct answer here. No matter what we do, people will die violently and chaos will win the day for months and years to come. If we’ve learned nothing else from Iraq and Afghanistan, it must be that the “you break it, you buy it” rule is in full effect.

It fills me with sorrow to see troops – American or otherwise – thrust into harm’s way. Men and women, Americans and Libyans, are going to be injured and killed in the coming weeks. Perhaps more important, we’re busily creating yet another generation that will remember the American weapons that killed their fathers and uncles.

Qaddafi has been batshit crazy for a very long time – to the continuing gentle detriment of the Libyan people (his contributions to world fashion, notwithstanding). Now that he’s actively crushing his people under tank treads and promising to hunt them down in their closets – “something” must be done.

Of course, we should recall that nothing actually has to get done when “something” must be done. Rwanda has been home to child soldiers and campaigns of punitive rape for the last decade or so. Somalia is a boiling pot of starvation and violence. North Koreans are starving under a dictatorial fist, etc, etc, painfully etc. When Obama says “we cannot stand idly by,” he might more accurately say “we choose not to stand idly by, this time.” That picking and choosing brings questions of national interest to the fore. There are a lot of reasons that we’re willing to attack Libya, while we let Rwanda burn. Some of these reasons are good, while others are less so. This sort of decision requires a calculus that takes into account a variety of ‘imperatives,’ most of which are far from moral. Do the economics of an invasion work? How about the logistics? How will it play in the primaries?

As an aside: For a quick and dirty measurement of your moral well being – consider the gap between when you hear about a catastrophe or invasion, and when you start taking hard-nosed action to profit from the human suffering. A longer gap is better.

I was moved to a small snort of happiness when I heard on the radio that France and Britain were taking the lead on military operations over there. It was pleasant to think of the civilized world stepping forward, with the US as one of many strong hands of support. We’ve been overextended in our military operations for a long time now. Kids younger than 11 have never known an America that was not actively “at war.” I include the scare quotes because, of course, America “going to war,” is quite different now from even the Korean war – to say nothing of the national focus and commitment that won the World Wars. Of course, this morning I hear that it’s American cruise missiles being launched. We’re in the third front of our war in the middle east.

In my dream world, congress will do something remarkable on Monday.

When the US is involved in removing a dictator or knocking over a government, we need to acknowledge that we’ve chosen to shoulder responsibility for a generation – call it 50 years.

To that end, even as military force evolves, congress should immediately start the long term thinking: America should commit to providing security and reconstruction, and support for a new Libyan government. When we remove a government, we will need to occupy the country and impose peace and order for exactly as long as it takes for a new government to stand up. We should expect to be providing full-on occupation “services” for three to five years.

Along the way, we need to do everything in our power to support the long term success of the country we invaded. We need to start with infrastructure. We should build roads, power plants, hospitals, food production, and schools. In 25 years, we want a powerful ally in that region of the world – not a bitter and sore former victim. We should commit to at least a decade of rebuilding, and to 50 years of active support. I want the generation whose fathers and uncles are being killed now to know, unambiguously, that we are there for the long-term good.

Also important is that we not do this on the backs of the people we’re attacking. Congress should commit the nation to not take any resources from Libya as we do these things. There is no way to avoid claims of reckless American imperialism – we’re just in it for the oil – that drum is already being beaten. A clear statement from the top – before we even go in – could help shape policy decisions. We should never go to war for profit – and congress should make that massively clear before the first American boots hit the ground.

All of this will be expensive and difficult. We’re already in a tight spot with the national budget – and this will make it harder. Yes, some of those dollars will come out of social security payouts. Yes, infrastructure built in a foreign country means that we will delay still further necessary repairs to our crumbling bridges and roads. We will, and should, see higher taxes and American sacrifice on the home front as we first attack and then rebuild Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

That’s the core of the moral calculus that should go into an invasion. We’ve decided to go and kill people with cruise missiles. I think it’s the right decision – to stop a murderous and insane tyrant. Doing the right thing has a cost – and that cost is that we take responsibility for the long term. We’re breaking it, we’re buying it.

Let’s get it right this time.

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