Going to War in Libya

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 31, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

Today’s post on ethics is written by Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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President Obama gave us his defense of his decision for military intervention in Libya on Monday evening. I substantially agreed with most of his arguments. However, he left out one vital component.

He neglected to ask for our permission – through our elected representatives.

Any two-bit dictator can go on air and offer some sort of “justification” for his or her decrees. Gadafi himself has done so several times. What Gadafi cannot do – and what Obama should do – is ask the people, through their representatives, to approve or disapprove those actions.

There is also a matter of what the Constitution requires. However, since this is not about Constitutional law, I am not in a position to pass judgment on that issue.

Before discussing this one objection to Obama’s actions, I want to put a brief spotlight on is this: that if the countries in the world would have done nothing, then the whole democratic movement across the Middle East, that had seen the removal of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and seen other leaders give up power to the people in hopes of keeping their title, would have been emboldened to use similar violence themselves.

The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.

We have reason to promote an overall aversion to the use of such strategies, and a part of doing that is acting so that those who use them are widely and harshly condemned and prevented from realizing any profit.

One of the counters we can offer is deterrence – a threat to thwart the desires of those leaders who should seek to employ this strategy. Yet, a far more secure option is to promote an overall aversion to those who use this strategy – an aversion whereby those who use this strategy disgusts good people and leads to their global condemnation and makes it that much easier to take action against (and that much harder to find people who will ally with) such brutal leaders.

In addition, while Obama admitted that there were several parts of the world where atrocities are taking place, he provided us with a checklist of conditions to look for in determining whether the American military should take part.

It is 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 Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

To review, then:

  1. A prospect of violence on a horrific scale.
  2. A broad coalition of support that included those who might otherwise have objected to our interference – the Arab League.
  3. An open request from “the people of Libya”,
  4. An ability to take effective action without putting troops on the ground – or, more precisely, without suffering a significant cost.

At the time Obama ordered the attack, there seems to have been no time to discuss the issue in committee. Forces loyal to Gadafi were poised to deal a deadly blow – claiming that they would have victory in 48 hours – and promising to deliver punishment door-to-door. By the time Congress would have finished debating the subject, the opposition in Libya would have been scattered or killed (or some of each).

A few argue that it was wrong for Obama to take action because no vital American interest was at stake. This is akin to saying that a person, coming across a scene of violence such as an assault or a rape that he has the means to stop with little risk to himself, should stand by and do nothing because “I’m not the one being attacked.” In one sense, this attitude can be said to be selfish and cruel. In another sense it is foolish, because our own security may well depend on allies stepping in to help us even when they have not been directly attacked.

So, I generally agree with Obama’s defense of this military intervention. Yet, I will be the first to confess that I do not know the fine details of how things are in the Middle East, and there may well be some details of which I am unaware that would change my mind. In general principles, the action seems justifiable – and was one that needed to be taken quickly.

However, the immediate crisis has now passed. There is now time for a public discussion of the merits of these actions and the merits of actions going forward.

In his speech, Obama should have said that he will ask Congress for a resolution endorsing his actions. I would write in defense of such a resolution – at least in those areas that I feel competent to write about. However, the fact that I think Obama probably did the right thing does not imply that the resolution from Congress stating that view is unnecessary.

Seeking this resolution would provide a significant demonstration of the merits and value of democracy to those very parts of the world that seem to be taking their first steps toward democracy. It will give them a living example of a political leader giving the people – through their elected representatives – a voice, as opposed to a leader making unrestrained decisions and merely explaining his actions to those over whom he rules.

It would be a valuable demonstration to the opposition in Libya, to protestors in countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia, and to those taking political leadership in post-revolution countries like Egypt and Tunisia, that the people can and should have a voice. It would count as praise for those types of relationships between rulers and their people, at a time when praise for those types of relationship might be particularly effective.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

TX CHL Instructor March 31, 2011 at 4:59 am

Using Dear Leader’s own criteria, we should be invading Mexico, and we should have done that long before worrying about Libya. The darling of the Left has shown himself to be just another neocon, like Bush, only much more expensive.

Oh, wait… Bush consulted Congress before going into Iraq.

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Ravi March 31, 2011 at 5:07 am

So, in your view…. on what topics should Obama be looking to Congress for endorsement? On everything he does? Are there any actions he can do without the need for endorsement?

Also, isnt Obama elected by the people and arent the congressmen elected by the same people as well?

What weightage does the Congress have in terms of democracy that Obama doesnt have and he needs their endorsement?

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Jake March 31, 2011 at 5:59 am

Why does the US have to intervene? I understand the justification but let Nato handle it. We support the economies of so many nations by allowing them not to focus as much on defense spending. We have bases and military forces in South Korea, Germany, England, Italy etc and these countries are competing with us in the global market place. Let them invade Libya and support the democratic movement. We’ve already done that in spades.

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Alonzo Fyfe March 31, 2011 at 7:49 am

TX CHL Instructor

Using Dear Leader’s own criteria, we should be invading Mexico, and we should have done that long before worrying about Libya.

I take this to be a knee-jerk comment delivered without even a moment of thought because it appeals emotionally to the commenter.

(1) While there is clearly violence in Mexico it is not on the scale anticipated in Libya.

(2) There is no broad coalition of support in favor of military intervention.

(3) There is no request for such intervention from the people of Mexico.

(4) There is no form of action that we can take that does not involve putting troops on the ground.

The troops we could have to put on the ground in Mexico are drug enforcement agents – a police force, whose job would be to acquire evidence, arrest suspects, and imprison those that are convicted. I’m actually quite certain that, as far as this goes, the US government is doing just that.

Ravi

So, in your view…. on what topics should Obama be looking to Congress for endorsement? On everything he does? Are there any actions he can do without the need for endorsement?

I am nowhere near a moral absolutist who holds that there are moral principles that never allow for exception or allow for the possibility of being overridden by other, competing considerations.

Pointing out that a moral conclusion I argue for would fail if it were taken as such an absolute is wholly a straw man argument.

Moral principles ultimately boil down to malleable desires and aversions – each of which has a strength, and can be outweighed when other malleable desires and aversions we have reason to promote stack up sufficiently high against them.

In my post, I mentioned one act that reasonable people would grant the President the power to take without consulting Congress. That is the power to take immediate action when the prospect of a significant loss is immediate – as was necessary to stop what would have likely been a slaughter in Bengazi, Libya.

Another involves sending the military to Japan to help after their disaster – or using military assets to assist in this country after a natural disaster such as Hurricane Catrina.

I gave specific reasons applicable to the Libya action as to why it is particularly important for Obama to ask for the consent of the people in continuing this action. One is to provide a lesson in democracy to the very people we are trying to help – one that will provide a clear role model that will help set their future sights on a government where the people have a voice.

That’s not particularly needed in the Japanese Tsunami and the Hurricane Katrina examples.

In addition, there’s the fact that the relief efforts are entirely humanitarian, while sending bombs in to kill people and destroy property deserves a bit more weighty consideration.

Also, isnt Obama elected by the people and arent the congressmen elected by the same people as well? What weightage does the Congress have in terms of democracy that Obama doesnt have and he needs their endorsement?

The three qualities that Congress has is that the Executive Branch does not have are:

(1) Each representative is connected to a smaller percentage of the population and is more directly answerable to their will, being elected every 2 years en masse.

(2) It takes more than one person to have a debate and the executive branch is poorly structured as a body for having such a debate.

(3) Congress consists of a body of people each with their own knowledge and expertise, allowing them to bring more information to bear on an issue.

There is a reason why the founding fathers gave the Congress the power to declare war, and not the President.

Jake March

Why does the US have to intervene? I understand the justification but let Nato handle it.

Quite simply, nobody else was in a position to intervene so effectively at the moment of crisis. Now that the crisis is over, there’s an ability to hand over control to other powers – and a reason to debate this issue.

It seems that steps are being taken to “let NATO do it”, though we must acknowledge the fact that the United States makes up about 25% of NATO – more than any other country – and has a fair amount of influence on that body. NATO itself will necessarily draw on American resources in any operation it undertakes.

However, as was shown by their refusal to support Bush’s actions in Iraq – we do not the ability to dictate what NATO does.

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Scott B March 31, 2011 at 9:20 am

You make an excellent point that, now that the immediate crisis is past, and action is underway, Obama should seek approval from Congress. But he still has time to do so.

Congress, in fact, _did_ authorize him to act in Libya. It did so by passing the War Powers Act in 1973, which said he had to notify of the action within 48 hours of it having taken place (he did), and requires the action to stop if Congress hasn’t retroactively approved it within 60 days, which time hasn’t yet passed.

So — good point, but it’s already encoded into law, and the time frame considered appropriate in that law hasn’t yet passed. Good point, but too soon.

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Gilgamesh March 31, 2011 at 10:46 am

For a point of clarity on the War Powers Act of 1973, it doesn’t allow the President to bomb whoever he wants and just has to tell Congress in the next couple of days. There are criteria to follow, such as imminent threat. However, one of the conditions is a UN resolution which the US does to some degree acquiesce to. Since there is a UN resolution allowing the use of force, it is legal for the President to use armed forces without getting a declaration from Congress. Still, Congress could pull the plug, but the President could say how they were condemning millions to death and tyranny as well as not supporting the troops. Hey, the latter worked throughout the 2000s, so it could still work now.

Should the President get a resolution from Congress? Even is not necessary, it could be a good political move; if Congress says yes to it, which would include Republicans, then later conservative candidates will have trouble making this an issue to get voters on their side.

As for the morality of the issue, I think the case President Obama makes is convincing: world-wide consent, no invasion, obvious threat to a people, etc. Indeed, not acting seems more immoral.

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Jake March 31, 2011 at 11:47 am

Alonzo-
Regardless of how effective the US is at responding- we still shouldn’t have. It was France and Germany that were advocating bombing Libya so they should have responded. We have done enough. We should be focusing on getting out of the wars we are already in rather than getting in another.

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woodchuck64 March 31, 2011 at 12:25 pm

Alonzo,

I want to put a brief spotlight on is this: that if the countries in the world would have done nothing, then the whole democratic movement across the Middle East, that had seen the removal of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and seen other leaders give up power to the people in hopes of keeping their title, would have been emboldened to use similar violence themselves.

Excellent observation. This reason should be front and center, overshadowing all others.

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Jake March 31, 2011 at 12:43 pm

Alonzo,

Excellent observation.This reason should be front and center, overshadowing all others.

Fine- but the US does not have to be the main country. The world consists of more countries than the US.

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Gilgamesh March 31, 2011 at 2:45 pm

@Jake

Considering that the US nearly outspends the rest of the world in military matters, to not have that power involved would be a great way to cripple the response in Libya. Like it or not, but the US have the most advanced technology when it comes to planes and missiles, and for the US the war is relatively easy since no ground troops are needed. The air force and navy have the ability to project power at little to no human cost for America. The US also has military assets already near-by; that’s something the Arab League, China, etc. can’t boast.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with Spider-Man ethics: with great power comes great responsibility.

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cl March 31, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Alonzo,

A few argue that it was wrong for Obama to take action because no vital American interest was at stake. This is akin to saying that a person, coming across a scene of violence such as an assault or a rape that he has the means to stop with little risk to himself, should stand by and do nothing because “I’m not the one being attacked.” In one sense, this attitude can be said to be selfish and cruel. In another sense it is foolish, because our own security may well depend on allies stepping in to help us even when they have not been directly attacked.

I don’t have enough facts to have an informed opinion about what’s going on in Libya, but I heartily agree with the logic you laid down there. Very well said.

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Ravi April 1, 2011 at 1:39 am

I am from India and i am ashamed at my country’s response to this situation in Libya. It abstained from the UN vote without taking a position and then the moment US led forces go with the no-fly-zone implementation with UN mandate, it criticizes the action. It could have easily voted NO in the UN which it dint. I think the same goes with countries like Russia etc which always do nothing and then criticize someone when they do.

Also, the public talk everywhere in other countries would be that US is after the Libyan oil and not for democracy etc. It is always cited that the US has attacked Iraq for its oil.

Is there any information on whether US really benefitted in terms of oil with its attack on Iraq and the subsequent occupation. Also, in terms of the amount it spent on the military action, would the supposed of benefit of oil be justified?

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Jake April 1, 2011 at 4:23 am

@ Gilgamesh- I think my whole issue with Libya boils down to my disagreement with the US outspending the entire world in defense spending- a point you made. We do this to our own detriment- I believe. We have bases in other parts of the world which end up helping other countries defer their own defense spending. We should not be the world’s cop or private security force. We may be in a position to attack Libya doesn’t mean we should. The responsibility for this lies with the rest of the world community- not exclusively the US- which I fee we have overdone our part in fighting wars in muslim countries. Our spidey sense of responsibility does not always come into play when other people are being killed by their dictators so why is it now?

@ Cl
This is akin to saying that a person, coming across a scene of violence such as an assault or a rape that he has the means to stop with little risk to himself, should stand by and do nothing because “I’m not the one being attacked.”

This is not analogous at all. What is analogous is two groups of people- A and B. Group B is always fighting. Group A tries to ignore it. Sometimes group B’s fights spill into group A and affect them. So one member of group A whom everyone perceives as being in the best shape will try to break up the fights or beat some of the group B members up to keep them in line. Currently the strong guy in group A is in 2 fights at the same time. He’s late for work and is getting behind on his mortgage payment. Members from group A want the strong guy to get into a 3rd fight because they think this 3rd fight is affecting their moral sense of things- despite not caring about other fights that were similar. Should the guy in good shape be the only one that fights or should other members of group A who are in good shape themselves help out so everybody wins.

I’m done commenting- I simply don’t agree with most of the opinions here. Peace.

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Zeb April 1, 2011 at 6:56 am

Is there any information on whether US really benefitted in terms of oil with its attack on Iraq and the subsequent occupation. Also, in terms of the amount it spent on the military action, would the supposed of benefit of oil be justified?

The oil services companies (Haliburton, KBR, etc.) to which top US officials were connected profited mightily. In terms of global power and influence, the US as a political/military entity is in a better strategic position now than it was with an unpredictable and unfriendly regime in charge of a large source of the strategic resource that oil is. The fact that the US is intervening in an oil rich nation ruled by an unfriendly regime (Libya), not intervening in an oil rich nation ruled by a friendly regime (Yemen/Saudi) and ignoring all the non-oil rich nations rightly raises suspicions. But it is possible for bad people to do good things for bad reasons (saving the Libyan resistance to get the oil, maybe).

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