The Libyan Quagmire

The Libyan affair — one does not know what to call it; not a war precisely, more an “experimental bombing” — is one in which both Canada and the United States are participating. We have a general election going on up here in the Great White North (where it is still snowing as I write, in the middle of April). As jaded readers will know, serious issues are never raised during an election — at least, not up here — and so all discussion of the topic has been put off until after it is over.

Our Canadian contribution to this experimental bombing is a few airplanes. This is a serious contribution: for such is the size of our air force, that none of our planes are spares. Your American contribution is rather more considerable. As usual, your allies may or may not have your interests at heart. But they consistently agree on one important proposition: that you have the means to do whatever they judge to be necessary.

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The means to do what? That is the very first question about the Libyan adventure, and since it is quite impossible to answer, there are no subsequent questions that need to be asked.

A month ago, in my daily newspaper column, I briefly reminded readers of the requirements for a just war from the Catholic or Western tradition, from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas through Westphalia. My point then was to make the reader aware that, while few wars meet all the requirements, this, if it is a war, meets none of them — not even one.

Just think of that for a moment. In outline: The enemy is not, in this instance, an aggressor against us or against any of our allies. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is fairly monstrous, though not by regional standards. In defending it against an anarchic uprising, he is doing no grave, let alone lasting damage to the international order. The obvious alternative (which has worked in the past with him) of presenting a plausible ultimatum with a realistic deadline and specific, foreseeable penalties was not tried. It was not even seriously considered — largely because we didn’t know what we wanted him to do, besides evaporate, and be replaced by angels. There is similarly no chance of victory for our side, since we don’t know what we want to achieve. Nor, thus, can we measure the evils we impose against the good we seek to accomplish. No “post-war” order is conceivable, let alone one that would be an improvement on that which preceded our intervention.

That is a sketch outline only; the more one considers the bellum iustum, the better one sees that the Libyan intervention is morally and intellectually incoherent. That is, completely senseless. Nuts.

By comparison, the U.S.-led incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan were fairly carefully thought through from the just-war angle by the Bush administration. Indeed, much of the horrific cost in both countries followed from it as America and its allies undertook the reconstruction of both countries, after intentionally disposing of their respective regimes, which were in fact active threats to significant U.S. and Western interests. Indeed, President George W. Bush would not have taken so much political heat had he done the “shock and awe” and then whistled and walked away.


What worries me is that it is not just Barack Obama. Britain’s David Cameron, Canada’s Stephen Harper, several other NATO leaders — and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, with bells on — have all bought into the notion that, for “humanitarian” reasons that none could articulate, some kind of military show had to be performed. And this one did not even have the cover of the current French outing in Ivory Coast, which goes into the file as “ex-colonial noblesse oblige”: trying to fix a mess that one’s own country played a key role in creating.

President Obama is arguably doing no more than Bill Clinton did over Serbia in 1999. Twelve years ago, I went splenetic in print against what Clinton was doing then. But Obama has taken the United States one step further: He has put American forces under foreign command, at least nominally. He has tipped Uncle Sam’s hat to a “new world order” in which wars are begun by bureaucratic and diplomatic consensus, and the United Nations (with its plurality of rogue state members) is recognized as the supreme arbiter of right and wrong, in which national sovereignty is itself conceded as an unfortunate legacy of Western Civ, for which apologies and restitution may be required.

America is now pretending not to be a superpower, not to be the leader of the Western alliance, not to have national and international interests that trump those of other nations. “American exceptionalism” has been purposefully surrendered, as part of what I diagnose as a narcissistic pose. You are a team player now, in a kind of Special Olympics for the morally and intellectually impaired.

Needless to say, Cameron, Sarkozy, and the rest like this arrangement. Among other things, it gives them access to the American taxpayer, who can be put on the hook for things like cruise missiles at one million euros a pop. When you don’t have adequate defenses yourself, it is good to have someone else’s to appropriate.

More should not be said than is necessary. I do not doubt that each of these statesmen — and Clinton and Blair and company before them — sincerely believes he has been moving the world in a right and just direction. I am only saying that, in the absence of some clear, forceful suggestion of where they’re going, they are all bloody fools. And I use “bloody” advisedly, for the consequences of confused meddling with advanced weapons systems are not innocent. They only look like a video game when seen through the visors of the same advanced technology. And they create a precedent for worse and worse.

In the case of Libya, and in every other case foreseeable, we can have no idea what the actual result of our “humanitarian” intervention will be. Prudence is the queen of the non-theological virtues, and some idea of the likely consequences of one’s acts is absolutely required. It is the groundwork of justice. Yet we do not even know who our friends are in Libya. It should be no surprise to us — had we been exercising prudence consistently — to discover this late in the day that they are mostly Islamist extremists of one or another shading, and that we are thus assisting an enemy more lethal and intractable than Gaddafi ever was.

I am not against humanitarianism, incidentally. Nor am I against foreign interventions in a humanitarian cause. The extraterritorial rescue or protection of murderously beleaguered minorities — Christians in several Muslim countries come to mind — can sometimes produce a proper justification for the (limited) use of arms. But it would require a prudential wisdom undetectable in any of the statesmen mentioned above. It would in fact require a coherent, Christian worldview.




  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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