Libya, Bombs, and The President

Last night an intern was cynically describing the ways of the world. “Democrats never think it’s time to cut spending,” he said dismissively. Ah, the young libertarian who knows the deep insights into human nature, the cosmos, and the cold analytic joy of Bayesianism. He continued his learned discourse; “And Republicans never think it’s time to raise taxes.”

“Except in wartime.” I mumbled. I mumble a lot. It’d been a long day, and I was probably not in the right frame of mind to hang out with a bunch of newly minted DC libertarians. Still, I find the self-confidence of young libertarians grating. The whole point of concepts like subjective value, creative destruction, and self-ownership argue against this kind of conceited attitude. Taken to its extreme, such conceit is fatal.

They also argue against the popular thinking about the government as a constructive, creative actor, or the Presidential Office as the seat of a bold leader. Christopher Hitchens recently tore into Mr. Obama’s “pathetic, dithering response to the Arab uprisings” as “both cynical and naive“. Dither like an Egyptian:

The Obama administration also behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland. We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus. And, just as there is something despicable about the way in which Swiss bankers change horses, so there is something contemptible about the way in which Washington has been affecting—and perhaps helping to bring about—American impotence. Except that, whereas at least the Swiss have the excuse of cynicism, American policy manages to be both cynical and naive.

This has been especially evident in the case of Libya. For weeks, the administration dithered over Egypt and calibrated its actions to the lowest and slowest common denominators, on the grounds that it was difficult to deal with a rancid old friend and ally who had outlived his usefulness. But then it became the turn of Muammar Qaddafi—an all-round stinking nuisance and moreover a long-term enemy—and the dithering began all over again. Until Wednesday Feb. 23, when the president made a few anodyne remarksthat condemned “violence” in general but failed to cite Qaddafi in particular—every important statesman and stateswoman in the world had been heard from, with the exception of Obama. And his silence was hardly worth breaking. Echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had managed a few words of her own, he stressed only that the need was for a unanimous international opinion, as if in the absence of complete unity nothing could be done, or even attempted.

On the right, Twilight imitator historical novelist Newt Gingrich leads the war hawks, who apparently misinterpreted Hitchen’s cry for action as a call for fighting:

VAN SUSTEREN: What would you do about Libya?

GINGRICH: Exercise a no-fly zone this evening. … It’s also an ideological problem. The United States doesn’t need anybody’s permission. We don’t need to have NATO, who frankly, won’t bring much to the fight. We don’t need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening. And we don’t have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes.

But it’s not just OIL HUNGRY REPUBLICRATS who want to fight; Gene Healy points out that this is a cherished view across the political spectrum:

Drudge is hardly alone in carping about Obama’s reluctance to intervene. Unchastened by their role in the Iraq debacle, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., recently advocated arming the rebels and forcibly grounding Libyan planes. And on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called for “cratering Libyan airports and runways” while simultaneously insisting that “the last thing we want to think about is any kind of military intervention.” (Figure that one out.)

This shows me that the real question here isn’t so much about the results on the ground, so much as it is about establishment posturing.

This is a good occasion, then, to reflect on a fundamental question: What is the U.S. military for? Humanitarian interventionists on the Left and the Right seem to view it as an all-purpose tool for spreading good throughout the world — something like the “Super Friends” who, in the Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, scanned the monitors at the Hall of Justice for “Trouble Alerts,” swooping off regularly to do battle with evil.

Our Constitution takes a narrower view. It empowers Congress to set up a military establishment for “the common defence … of the United States,” the better to achieve the Preamble’s goal of “secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Armed liberation of oppressed peoples the world over wasn’t part of the original mission.

America would be “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” John Quincy Adams proclaimed in a famous speech on July 4, 1821, but she would be “champion and vindicator only of her own.”

Condemn Gaddafi (and the other dictators across the Arab world), provide humanitarian aid to the people demonstrating and wish them well in their fight for freedoms. Keep the planes on the ground and the soldiers at home. If our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us anything, it’s this: We may, through force and bloodshed and immense cost, win freedom for others. We cannot, at any cost, keep it for them. At the most philosophical level of libertarianism, freedom comes from within; it is much the same with nations.

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