Sussman: The Uncomfortable Intervention

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last week, the regime of Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qadaffi fell after a six month military campaign spearheaded by Libyan rebels and backed by NATO. Now, western journalists cheerfully report Libyan gratitude. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff writes that Libyans exuberantly thank the U.S. for making the difference between “celebration and the cemetery.”

While thanks should be politely received, the intervention should not be understood as a clear case in morally efficacious conduct on which to model future intervention. Rather, it should reminder us of the complexities and ambiguity inherent in foreign policy. It was, after all, the theoretical from hell: A tyrant poised to kill as many as 100,000 of his own people, preventable only by western military assistance to an opposition force as unorganized as it was potentially radical Islamist. And a split second to decide.

The decision had odd (if predictable) effects on American politics. Within the parties, center-left isolationists fought ‘cruise missile liberals,’ while austerity-bent Tea Partiers battled neoconservative party-mates.  Equally vehement opposition was voiced by Rep. Ron Paul, would-be abolisher of the Department of Education, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, champion of universal health care.

Then there were those of us who fell somewhere between Taftian isolationism and the Chomskian contention that American might is necessarily malignant. Bothering those in this chasm were the irrepressible images of Rwandan genocide victims juxtaposed against the cost –in blood and treasure– of the failed nation-building project in Afghanistan. Was short-term, life-saving intervention possible without long-term commitment?

Liberals like myself, sensitive to both the loss of Libyan life and the need of recession-battered Americans, sought three assurance before intervention. First, an indisputable rebel call for intervention. Democratic imposition, from Vietnam to Iraq, is a failed strategy; foreign intervention can only serve as a conduit to authentic democracy in response to the upward pressure of a mobilized citizenry. Second, intervention required multilateralism. Because the U.S. has a poor foreign intervention record –including the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), the Congo (1960), Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973)– it is important to act alongside other nations to crystalize benign intentions. Plus, the burden of humanitarian intervention should be shared by wealthy nations. Finally, cautious interventionists asked for a clear military strategy that included exit options, along with analysis of the rebels’ interest and potential in fomenting an acceptably liberal regime.

Of course, in March 2011, these questions lacked definitive answers. There was no guarantee that radical Islamists would not co-opt the resistance, that the threat to civilians would be ended within six months, or that the commitment of France and the U.K. would not diminish as the Euro crisis intensified. Yet the alternative –tens of thousands of preventable deaths– was too grotesque. So liberals like myself, the scions of a body of political thought based on affinity for the rational, empirical and pragmatic, had to venture into an unfamiliar realm: faith. We supported the Libyan intervention, but were deeply uncomfortable doing so.

Libya’s ambiguities also constituted relatively unfamiliar territory for American foreign policy, which, over the past half-century, has been defined by moral clarity. The profound sacrifices of World War II were justified by the legitimate belief that the difference between liberal democracy and fascism is worth deadly struggle. In the Cold War, the U.S. became self-styled defender of all that was good (democratic capitalism) against all that was evil (communism).  Now for two decades, it has centered around Manichean conflict with global terrorism.

These last two examples suggest that rigid foreign policies predicated on moral unambiguity encourage excess. The threat communism posed to democracy was real, but it did not justify the overthrow of democratically elected governments in the belief that leftism anywhere would lead to communism everywhere. Similarly, the moral certainty of the quite necessary War on Terror led the U.S. to counterproductive overreaction, embodied in the invasion of Iraq, a sovereign nation that posed no national security threat. Charging into foreign policy flying the confident banner of moral certitude, it seems, has less than appealing consequences.

What Libya reminds us, then, is that foreign policy requires careful scrutiny of difficult choices between equally compelling obligations. Rarely are choices as clear as domino theorists or neoconservatives think. The Libyan intervention has hitherto succeeded, but it easily could have descended into Somalian disaster. Even now, the course of the transition government is uncertain. So while we should certainly celebrate the liberation of the Libyan people, we should not think it a paragon for future intervention. New choices, equally difficult, are surely on the horizon. When they arrive, we will not need a rigid, morally unambiguous theory of action, but, rather, the patience and calm to critically analyze our choices and make difficult decisions between competing goods.

Sam Sussman is a junior transfer student of politics, philosophy and literature. He’d love you to send him your thoughts at ssussma1@swarthmore.edu


  1. “Libya’s ambiguities also constituted relatively unfamiliar territory for American foreign policy, which, over the past half-century, has been defined by moral clarity. ”

    In the past half-century, our major military engagements have been Vietnam, Granada, Desert Storm, and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. How have any of these been defined by moral clarity?

    Repeatedly in this column, you set up national actors as monolithic. Clearly, with the War on Terror, this is not an accurate assessment. There was moral clarity only for a minority of the US population (which happened to have political power at the time). The bifurcation of public opinion really challenges your underlying ideas.

    Similarly, I feel like the intervention in Libya was relatively level-headed and scrutinized compared to some of our other recent military adventures. I’m unclear the evidence that the intervention was hasty or otherwise an example of bad planning.

    I guess it seems like your thesis is: “The US should approach future interventions in a manner comparable to how the Obama administration approached intervening in Libya”?

  2. Miles: Thanks for reading, and for your comments. I think its clear -although if its not, I certainly take responsibility for that- that ‘moral ambiguity’ refers to how US foreign policy was conceptualized among policy makers and framed publicly, not the way it was conducted. In the paragraph directly after that you quote, I criticize the excess of those policies- indicating pretty clearly that I don’t conceive of them as morally unambiguous. But the people who carried out those policies did- and that, in my view, is problematic (this is my thesis).

    In terms of a unitary actor, I stand by the view that American foreign policy -with the very brief, and marginal at that, exception of the Carter Administration’s emphasis on human rights- has been relatively monolithic in the post-war period. This is not to say that there haven’t been diverse views among the population, but that those views were never reflected among policy makers. Containment, despite extraordinarily minor alterations in application, dominated Cold War policy from the Truman to Reagan Administration. The same is essentially true of the continuation of Bush War on Terror policies in the Obama Administration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading