Obama's Formula for Military Intervention


For those of us struggling to understand Obama's Rules of War, the president offered some clues in his speech about Libya last night:

Some question why America should intervene at all—even in limited ways—in this distant land.  They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing needs here at home.

It's true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right.  In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

From this statement we can deduce a formula for humanitarian intervention. Let P equal the probability of horrific violence, U equal the unique ability to stop that violence (which is the sum of an international mandate, a broad coalition, Arab support, and a plea for help), and A equal the ability to avoid using ground troops. In that case, P + U + A = Humanitarian Intervention. But note that if the "unique ability" mentioned by Obama (which has to do not with America's military capabilities but with the approval of certain foreigners) really is unique, this situation has never arisen before and may never arise again.

Perhaps I am misreading Obama. Other passages from his speech suggest much wider latitude for military interventions that have nothing to do with national defense:

Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world's many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act….

We knew that if we…waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen….

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action….

There will be times…when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security—responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America's problems alone, but they are important to us. They're problems worth solving.  And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

In such cases, we should not be afraid to act.

Got that? "We" are morally obligated to intervene in situations where "our [undefined] interests and values are at stake," which include but may not be limited to natural disasters, genocide, mass murder, the threat of war, regional insecurity, and the possibility of disrupted commerce. The only thing that comes through clearly in this speech is the megalomaniacal moral vanity of a man who proudly flouts the Constitution, spends other people's money, and risks other people's lives to satisfy the inscrutable demands of his own troubled conscience.

More on Obama's Libya speech here, here, here, and here.