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An Ignorant Perspective on Libya

Tax time prompts many of us to ponder what our tax dollars pay for. This year I thought, just a bit, about the most recent significant (if still relatively small) addition to the U.S. budget. I came to the conclusion that–for various reasons–I know next to nothing about what is happening or is likely to happen. Men and women in power know much more about the situation than I do, and have decided that it is prudent to intervene militarily. I wish I knew why.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to succeed at regime change. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to bring democracy. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to save more lives than it costs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign leaders to know what’s best for Libyans. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we’re not training and supporting thugs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we won’t inspire future outrage and violence. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, the long history of disastrous foreign military intervention will find an exception. But I don’t.

I wish I knew why, this time, procedural safeguards on grave decisions are not important. But I dont.

F.A. Hayek once argued, albeit in a different context, that such astounding ignorance as mine calls for staunch adherence to principles rather than the expedient pursuit of concrete objectives. I just don’t know enough to judge this or any prospective case for military intervention by its own merits. Lacking the detailed knowledge necessary to distinguish this from other cases of intervention, I am left leaning on what I know about the success and consequences of military intervention generally. But I can’t know beforehand whether Libya will be an exception.

So I’m stuck with my principles, like  Jeffersons recommendation of “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” along with some more basic rules. They don’t work every time. But that’s not the point. When they’re held firmly–even dogmatically–as principles, they do better than someone as dumb as me could manage.

Maybe that makes me a lunatic. Maybe those in power do know the exceptional merits of this case. Maybe they know why dropping bombs and shooting missiles makes sense this time. But I don’t.

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

– F. A. Hayek

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  1. Scott wrote:

    I’ll just take each of your points in turn.
    1 and 2. Regime change and democracy: not in the UN mandate, though possible outcomes. Force is to protect civilians.
    3. Well, we can never know the counterfactual of how many lives would have been lost if there was no intervention, so we make estimates based on the best evidence about different forseeable outcomes. The Washington Examiner op-ed you link to citing one (highly controversial) view on Rwanda misses the key point that UN troops in the country could have prevented much of the killing had they been authorized to take preventive action. How long it would have taken 15,000 US troops to deploy is a silly way to argue against intervention, as if that was the only option.
    4. Intervention is called for by Libyans themselves. Frequently and vocally.
    5. No evidence yet provided of significant links between rebels and terrorism. And no arming of rebels has been authorized.
    6. Because bombing is called for by Libyans and Arab League. To protect Libyans.
    7. You are comparing apples and oranges. Multi-lateral humanitarian intervention with right authority, just cause, and domestic and regional support is different than the so-called interventions I suspect you object to. The Econ Journal Watch article (very weak source) seems to be objecting to empire and nation-building–again, not what has been authorized in Libya.
    8. Procedural safeguards: well, there are both domestic and international procedures. No humanitarian intervention has ever had more thorough international legitimacy than this one. Domestically, an argument can be made that Obama acted constitutionally (and has extensively consulted Congress throughout the process) but will need Congressional approval if the US involvement continues.

    Its hard to make sense of the Hayek bit at the end. You seem to argue for principles. One principle worth considering is the Responsibility to Protect doctrine endorsed by the UN.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  2. The problem is, as with so many similar interventions, the folk on the ground can’t tell you what they want as they simply don’t have a voice or mechanism to make their views know. OK, they can Tweet about it, if they’re quick, but that really only produces statistical and not qualitative information. But even if they did have a voice, and I am equally convinced that day is not far away, if they took the same attitude and said, in effect, “…we don’t understand, so we don’t have a valid view” (with all due respect to F.A. Hayek and your intentional thought provoking stance), nothing will change. The wrong interventions will continue to be delivered badly and with very doubtful outcomes. And while folk in the (in quotes) “developed world” continue to think that their politicians know best, and ignore the plight enforced on the citizens of other countries by their own Government, with their acquiescence, so that they can own three cars, two 52″ TVs, eighteen pairs of shoes etc, and all the other crap of the consumer society, skyscrapers will continue to fall in New York.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  3. @Scott, you make interesting and useful points, thanks. What needs more consideration, I believe, is the repeated “this time” in Adam Martin’s argument. Many of the reasons you give for armed intervention have been given over and over again in the past: protecting civilians was offered to justify invasions of Mexico and the Philippines (thus Adam Martin’s citation of Mark Twain), requests from locals for the use of force were used to justify the invasion of Vietnam (an action that Robert McNamara, at the end of his life, came to consider a colossal mistake and waste of life, because even someone as well-informed as he had failed to understand Vietnamese political dynamics), and so on.

    So if you were to expand on the useful points you make, I would want a fuller consideration of the numerous historical situations in which the exact same arguments you make could have been made, and indeed were made, and yet unpredicted and negative consequences followed.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  4. DavidMc0 wrote:

    So the world should have just stood by and let Gadaffi’s regime re-take the rebel held areas and kill many of the Libyans who dared to stand up and demand freedom?

    The capabilities and intentions of the regime were very clear.

    The plea for help from those who knew it was victory or death was very clear.

    Those who have intervened have helped prevent a large scale massacre and open the door to possible regime change and democracy that would be very unlikely without the intervention.

    Nobody knows what the outcome will be, nor if it will be an easy journey, but using that as an excuse to stand by and let a murderer murder & the weak die is wrong.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  5. What is it in the American psyche, I wonder, that they always have to interfere, when at the same time, if another power interfered to the same extent in US internal affairs, all hell would break loose? Is it because they were so late into the last World War, that they have had to be first into every other war since? I think Gandhi’s words are prophetic here… “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent”.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Daniel Altman wrote:

    I don’t know how to answer all of Adam’s questions, but I don’t think holding dogmatically to principles is necessarily the answer, either. To do so would be to become an absolutist – to deny that every situation is different, that resources are limited, and that a government’s ability to do anything well depends on a constantly changing mix of partners and political constraints.

    Even with perfect foresight, any organization must use a combination of principles and pragmatism: what you’d like to do versus what you can do. (I’m guessing this language will resonate with the economists who read this blog.) Introducing pragmatism doesn’t require you to abandon your principles, nor does it automatically result in an invasion of Libya. But it does mean that, whatever your principles are, you probably won’t intervene in every civil war or humanitarian crisis… and those who hold dogmatically to their principles will ignore the constraints and call you a hypocrite.

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Mark Brady wrote:

    Adam, your analysis suggests that, if the U.S. government had enough knowledge, it might make sense for them to intervene on such occasions. However, aren’t you perhaps also assuming that the U.S. government believes in, and seeks to achieve, the noble aims to which it publicly aspires? Why should we make this assumption?

    Posted April 21, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  8. Scott wrote:

    @Michael Clemens. Thanks for the response. If I were to elaborate a longer response to Adam, I would contrast the very real differences between historical interventions (which even at the time would have only been nominally named humanitarian but were quite clearly self-interested) and the current intervention. If we examine key criteria in the extensive literature on just war and humanitarian intervention, I would start with just cause, right authority, and reasonable prospects of success as things that distinguish the current intervention from previous interventions. The Philippines or Mexico didn’t have right authority (the UN authorizing intervention, Filipinos and Mexicans calling for intervention) or just cause (not invaded for high risk of mass atrocities). A full historical account must also note that the lack of intervention in a number of cases has led to many millions of deaths. So a full response would take the following structure. 1. There are generally accepted moral principles for humanitarian intervention that are both theoretically justified and accepted by the member nations of the UN. 2. These principles would not have justified intervention in the historical examples that I agree are objectionable. 3. Libya ACTUALLY IS different from these historical cases.
    You’ll be familiar with similar arguments about aid. “Aid has always failed to produce growth and reduce deprivations, therefore it always will fail to do so.” Well, not if aid is done differently! The historical cases of terrible interventions should give us pause, but not stop us dead in our tracks. Hope this helps.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 2:50 am | Permalink
  9. Scott wrote:

    Sorry I should also note any one of the six criteria of R2P (right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, reasonable prospects of success) can disqualify an intervention, so it is easy to pick off the historical examples, but hard to show how Libya fails to meet the criteria for justified intervention.

    Posted April 22, 2011 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  10. Mario Rizzo wrote:

    Another problem is that the US government defines the national interest so broadly that it escapes all limitations on its power. The fact is that the US Constitution does not enable war for “humanitarian purposes” — a kind of general welfare provision for the world. The public, even educated public, has no clue as to whether US “vital” interests are at stake. So the general (“dogmatic”) rule of non-intervention is a good one. The violation of such a “dogma” produced the Spanish-American War and World War I, among other things.

    Posted April 25, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  11. slw wrote:

    At least someone else is paying attention to history from Hayek and Jefferson and great critic for the lack of transparency rather than the redundant party bickering. If the US would back off and stop being a micro-manager then countries, like Libya, would be able to develop on their own. One day, these countries would take more pride in their self-sufficient governments and thank the US rather than continuing this hostile world environment.

    Posted April 26, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

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