libya, the deficit, and morality in politics

I know I am defecting from my usual comrades here, but I find myself pretty sympathetic to American involvement in Libya in this situation. It’s hard to argue that a dictator may threaten and carry out mass murder without consequences, and it’s hard to argue that the major military power in the world need not sully its hands with such things. Add to this the fact that past American policy has helped develop regimes like this (and the others falling in the region), and I think the United States bears a moral responsibility/obligation to shield protestors from overwhelming force. I do think, though that Obama should take this as an opportunity to make a couple of moves, none of which seems to be happening:

1.) Establish the use of moral obligation as a standard of political decision making. The division of labor has become: foreign policy (particularly military) and “social issues” (e.g., abortion and same-sex marriage) are defended on moral grounds while social policy has to bear a very different standard having to do with efficiency and budgetary wisdom. I would like to see Obama say: “we were morally obligated to help the Libyan people, and we did. We are similarly morally obligated to provide access to health care at home, and we will do so. When faced with a moral crisis in Libya we did not stop to check on the cost, nor did we let our budget deficit stand in the way of moral action. Let’s have the discussion on moral grounds: is it OK to deny health care to people who can’t pay? Is the deficit more important than food on families’ tables? The truth is that the United States cannot meet its moral obligations with the unreasonably low tax rate we currently have. We need to raise taxes to a sensible level in order to fulfill our obligations at home and abroad and avoid leaving greater fiscal problems to our children.”

2.) Establish a foreign policy standard based on principles of real democracy and human rights. The last time this was even tried was under Carter, and it quickly collapsed. But the Libyan action will be particularly effective if Obama can articulate to the world that the United States will pay any price, bear any burden, in the service of true democratic autonomy and respect for human rights around the world. And then perhaps we won’t leave around messes (Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban) from prior adventures that come back to bite Americans and the rest of the world.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

4 thoughts on “libya, the deficit, and morality in politics”

  1. Andrew: I appreciate your willingness to ‘defect’ from your ‘comrades’ on this, and to acknowledge that military intervention to protect human rights and democracy has its place. I agree with this too, but I think it is harder to apply this principle than you are letting on.

    For instance, why are we not intervening in Bahrain or Yemen? Should it matter that they are allies? Or that the fight in Bahrain is sectarian, and the Iranians are at least rooting for, if not supporting, the Shi’ite minority? And what about Iran itself? Your principle suggests you are open to invasion there too. (Obama’s lecturing McCain about needing to negotiating with our enemies now seems like a distant memory).

    I ask these questions not because I know the right answers. I’ll be damned if I knew I what I would do if I were in Obama’s shoes.

    BTW, I don’t think Carter had an answer to these questions either. I’m no expert on the Carter administration, but I think it is much too glib to say that his foreign policy was based on “real democracy” and “human rights.” (certainly, that is the focus of his post-presidential activities, but having such a pure focus is much easier when you are not the president) The US had dealings with all kinds of authoritarian regimes during his administration– most nobably, that of the Shah of Iran. (And Jimmy C certainly did not complain about issues of human rights or democracy in Egypt when brokering the Israel-Egypt peace deal). This is not meant as criticism. I think that it is basically impossible to follow a consistent line of human rights and democracy, and that all US administrations have necessarily been opportunistic– when it looks like an authoritarian regime will fall, we tend to jump on the bandwagon — otherwise, we try and work with it unless it harms US interests or harms its citizens to such an egregious extent that it cannot be ignored. Of course, we can’t *say* that we are being opportunistic. But how could it be otherwise?

    (Note that this is further complicated by the fact that democracy and human rights do not always go together. There is the problem that sometimes we support the elimination of an authoritarian regime and it ends up persecuting its citizens or harming our allies. Case in point is the Hamas electoral victory in the P.A.– supported by the Bush Administration– oops!)

    P.S. If we are comfortable with intervention in Libya, we should also be more comfortable with the idea, if not the execution or the timing, of the US invasion of Iraq. One could argue that they are very different beause the pretext for the Iraq invasion was that Saddam was a threat to us and/or that he had something to do with 9-11, and this was false (or worse than false– i.e., faked). But if W knew that a justification based on Saddam’s being a threat to his own people would have worked, he would have used it. At the time, such a justification would not have worked, either with the US public or at the UN. But if we adopt your suggested principle, then we must recognize that Saddam was as much of a murderous, crazed tyrant as is Gaddafi– and this should have been a call to action. (I guess you could argue that Saddam’s ability to threaten his own people was already neutralized by the sanctions and no-fly zone in the north; but as many commentators have pointed out in the Libyan case too, that is a very unstable situation; the inner logic of the situation points to regime change). (And BTW, if you don’t like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the above considerations suggest that you are more likely to think that Bush sr. was wrong not to go to Baghdad [or at least protect the Shi’ites in the south] in 1990.) Personally, I was a nervous supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on Colin Powell’s testimony at the UN (I thought he was a man of integrity and could never imagine he would allow himself to be used in that way), and because I presumed that we would have a good plan. It turns out that I was naive on both counts. But that doesn’t change the issue of whether it might have been right to invade–in 1990, if not in 2003, and with a better plan– to promote human rights and democracy.


  2. Ezra, I appreciate your comments but think my position is considerably more narrowly construed than you’re assuming. In neither of the Iraq situations was there evidence of what gets called “clear and present danger” in the US legal context — that is, of ongoing or imminent crimes against humanity; nor of an indigenous uprising underway. That Saddam Hussein was a Bad Guy ™ is indisputable, but “a threat” is not sufficient in my view. I also think the indisputably multilateral character of the Libya action is in stark contrast with the ’03 Iraq invasion.

    Of course democracy and human rights do not always covary–an old problematic in political theory. But they can be independent goals of American foreign policy. More importantly, in the presence of a human rights culture, I assert that democracy ends up being far more stable.


  3. Gotcha, Andrew. But I think you know that that line is very hard to draw. And Saddam certainly was a clear and present danger to the Shi’ites in the south in 1991 (as well as the Kurds in the north). Didn’t you see Three Kings? Great flick.

    BTW, The wikepdia article on the Gulf War (; see “The end of active hostilities”) is actually interesting, and speaks to the limits of multilateralism (like all principles, it is great in the first instance; but has its limits). The Bush sr guys say they didn’t invade, in part, bc the coalition would have fallen apart. OK, so in 1991, you couldn’t get a coalition to support invasion to stop a tyrant from murdering his own people; but in 2011, you can. Does that mean the US should do the second invasion but not the first? Tricky. All because others don’t want to join in an action with us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. (The classic example: The U.S. should have bombed the train tracks to Auschwitz regardless of what their allies or anyone else might have said; e.g.,


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