Monday, April 18, 2011

Esclalation 101, Libya War version: credibility "on the line"

Forget the shaky humanitarian justification for the US, France and Britain to intervene in Libya's civil war. Now American credibility and power are on the line. So says foreign policy bigwig Leslie Gelb, the emeritus president of the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), in How Libya Saps America's Power The Daily Beast 04/17/2011:

Here's what America's worst enemies like Iran and North Korea are spouting on the international circuit about Libya: If the vaunted and mighty NATO and the U.S. can't humble that weirdo Col. Gaddafi and his pint-size army, "what do we have to worry about?" To be sure, NATO and the U.S. haven't hit Gaddafi with all they have for fear of killing civilians. But they have hit him hard and on the open desert — presumably ideal terrain to show off the West's devastating air power, as opposed to the muck-like guerrilla war in Afghanistan. And while the West's enemies know well NATO's self-imposed restrictions on air attacks, they assume that NATO and the U.S. would put such limitations on themselves no matter where they fought. Thus, to Tehran and Pyongyang, the lesson of Libya is that the West can't do decisive harm to them.

NATO leaders are well aware that their credibility and power are on the line. [my emphasis]
Then again, maybe those spokespeople for North Korea and Iran are just blowing hot air. But Gelb doesn't mention that possibility, so it must not be a Serious one.

This is an important dynamic of wars. In American politics, the concept of our credibility and power being at stake is taken very seriously as a reason to continue with messy wars that promise no really good outcome and that are not vital to American national interests.

It's a deadly circular logic, literally deadly. Nothing in particular was at stake for the United States when the Obama Administration began this intervention last month. This is the case whether or not one accepts the humanitarian justification for intervening. But then once we enter a war, the logic of escalation locks its jaws onto the situation. Where no vital interest of the US was at stake when this starting, now our credibility and power are on the line! At least according to the belligerent logic that dominates our foreign and military policies.

Gelb's piece lays out various major options for the US. The idea of stating plainly the limits of American commitments in terms of action and of time and sticking to those limits is not among them. In the logic of escalation, such a consideration is not Serious. After all, American credibility and power are on the line.

Less Serious observers might wonder if there might not be some credibility and power advantages in letting the world see that the US has the good sense not to do stupid things. Like getting involved in another way that will be effectively endless. But Leslie Gelb is a Very Serious person.

To his credit, he does recommend what I suppose is the most antiwar option that can fit within the range of Seriousness:

All of which is to say that barring a stroke of luck, the West is up the creek without a paddle — and can't stop paddling. There are no promising solutions. Best under such circumstances to maintain military operations at about current levels rather than do more and still fail. Best to let Paris and London complain about NATO (read the U.S.) not doing enough and leave the brunt of the fighting to them. After all, they were the prime advocates of military intervention. [my emphasis]
I hate analogies and metaphors in foreign policy arguments. As Jeffrey Record has shown, foreign policy thinking by analogy has had destructive consequences for the US for decades. But as long as we're analogizing, I would suggest that "not throwing good money after bad" would be a better analogy. In terms of creeks and paddles, "waist deep in the big muddy" is probably more appropriate. Because in this situation, the US does have a paddles, lots of them actually, way more than any other country. And we can paddle on throught the rapids toward the waterfall - or, more likely, toward more rapids and more rapids. Or, we can paddle to the shore and take the boat out of the water.

Gelb's recommendation really is remarkable, though: "to maintain military operations at about current levels rather than do more and still fail." In other words, we're failing. The least damaging thing we can do for our credibility and power is to keep on failing in the same way, indefinitely. No, it doesn't make jack for sense. But making sense is not a necessary quality to be regarded as Serious. As Paul Krugman has said, it's better (in the Beltway Village) to be conventionally wrong than to be unconventionally right. And the Serious script for war means you can even consider just deciding it's not worth it and quit.

Because, you know, our credibility and power are on the line!

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