Libya's multilateral war: Are we serving our values, our interests, or the wishes of Europe?

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March 28 2011 7:28 AM

The Libyan Job

Your sons and daughters in Libya, fighting for France.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the  Libya conflict

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Click iamge to expand.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went on the Sunday shows to defend the U.S. military intervention in Libya. They emphasized its "humanitarian" motives, noting repeatedly that Muammar Qaddafi had vowed to crush his domestic adversaries with "no mercy." But under interrogation, Gates and Clinton exposed what's really driving our participation in the Libya campaign: the wishes of other governments.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

On This Week, Jake Tapper asked Gates: "Do you think Libya posed an actual or imminent threat to the United States?" Gates answered, "It was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest, and it was an interest for all of the reasons Secretary Clinton talked about: the engagement of the Arabs, the engagement of the Europeans, the general humanitarian question …" On Meet the Press, David Gregory asked why we're committing military resources if Libya isn't a vital U.S. interest. Clinton responded by citing other considerations:

Do [the Libyans] have a major influence on what goes on in Europe because of everything from oil to immigration? And, you know, David, that raises a very important point. Because you showed on the map just a minute ago Afghanistan. You know, we asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us 10 years ago. They have been there, and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked. The attack came on us, as we all tragically remember. They stuck with us. When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interest. The U.K. and France were the ones who went to the Security Council and said, "We have to act, because otherwise we're seeing a really violent upheaval with a man who has a history of unpredictable violent acts right on our doorstep."

In short, attacking Libya was the Europeans' idea—not just for moral but for self-interested reasons—and we're going along to pay them back for helping us in Afghanistan.

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When Clinton tried her humanitarian shtick on Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer pointed out that we aren't attacking Syria's ruling family, which has massacred many thousands of dissidents. To this, Clinton could only answer, "Well, if there were a coalition of the international community, if there were the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, if there was a condemnation that was universal …"

In other words, morals alone won't move us to attack. We'll do it only if other nations care.

When Tapper asked the same question—why we're attacking Libya but not Syria or the Ivory Coast—Clinton argued, "There's not an air force being used. There is not the same level of force. The situation is significantly different enough that the world has not come together."

The no-air-force claim may be true of the present crackdown in Syria. But in 1982, Syria's ruling family used its air force to bomb a rebellious city and then sent in tanks and ground troops to complete the massacre. Amnesty International estimated the death toll at 10,000 to 25,000. In the current Libyan crisis, by comparison, Amnesty reported a week ago, "It is clear that hundreds have died in Libya since unrest began. This has included people deliberately killed, killed as a result of excessive or indiscriminate use of lethal force, those who were caught in the ongoing armed conflict, and as a result of human rights abuses."

That's hundreds versus thousands. So a regime's level of violence against its citizens obviously doesn't drive our military decisions. Nor does the use of air power to slaughter civilians. What has drawn us into Libya but not Syria is the last thing Clinton mentioned: "The world has not come together" to call for action in Syria or the Ivory Coast. Fatalities and air power don't matter unless they produce international support for intervention.

"Each of these situations is different," said Clinton. "But in Libya, when a leader says, 'Spare nothing, show no mercy,' and calls out air force attacks on his own people, that crosses a line that people in the world had decided they could not tolerate."

The key phrase isn't no mercy or air force. It's they could not tolerate. Not we, but they. We're outsourcing our standards for intervention.

That's why our role in the Libya mission is so limited. This project isn't our baby. We're doing it for the Europeans. As Clinton put it:

NATO assuming the responsibility for the entire mission means that the United States will move to a supporting role. Just as our allies are helping us in Afghanistan, where we bear the disproportionate amount of sacrifice and the cost, we are supporting a mission through NATO that was very much initiated by European requests joined by Arab requests.

So the good news is that exposure of U.S. forces in Libya will be carefully restricted. The bad news is the reason for this restriction: We're just there to do a job for the Europeans.

That doesn't mean we're insincere about the moral case for intervention. But it does mean that, ultimately, we're basing our military decisions on the wills of other governments. In fact, the Obama administration appears to be taking this idea one step further. Tapper asked Clinton to reconcile the Libya mission with two quotes from 2007. One was Obama's: "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." The other was Clinton's: "If the administration believes that any—any—use of force against Iran is necessary, the president must come to Congress to seek that authority."

Yesterday, looking back, Clinton explained the discrepancy this way: "I don't think that this kind of internationally authorized intervention, where we are one of a number of countries participating to enforce a humanitarian mission, is the kind of unilateral action that either I or President Obama was speaking of several years ago."

In other words, when the mission is "internationally authorized," the president doesn't have to consult Congress.

I'm no Tea Partier, but that sure sounds like a substitution of foreign for congressional authority. It's worse than outsourcing. Outsourcing is when you hire somebody abroad to do what you want. In Libya, we're doing the opposite. We're hiring ourselves out to do what somebody abroad wants. We're providing what Gates calls our "unique capabilities"—scores of Tomahawk missiles, tanking equipment, surveillance and reconnaissance systems—to an international coalition whose authority somehow replaces consultation with our elected representatives.

I don't see any basis for that in the text or spirit of the Constitution. And when many of the regimes being consulted aren't exactly democratic themselves, I wonder where this doctrine of deference will lead us.

(Essays worth reading on Libya: Fred Kaplan points out that multilateral military action worked in Kosovo. John Dickerson argues that Obama, like George W. Bush, changed his criteria for intervention because the facts warranted it. Josh Marshall says we had "no clear national or even humanitarian interest" for striking Libya.National Review offers a symposium on whether the military campaign is constitutional. Andrew Sullivan, citing Iraq, warns that our grand humanitarianism won't erase the factional realities of Libya's civil war. William Kristol urges conservatives to stand with the president and not " carp and cavil in ways that suggest America can't prevail.")

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