The Action Bias and Responsibility
Congressional leaders are pushing for some sort of American response to the growing violence in Libya. It is the usual litany of easy-sounding policies, like no-fly zones and surgical strikes against certain Libyan assets, that always feel emotionally satisfying but carry enormous costs.
This sort of reaction seems born out of a particularly American political mindset: the sense that if a problem exists somewhere in the world, then America must be the one that solves it. Our urge to solve problems often overpowers our urge to operate within our budgetary and capability limits—framing things in terms of good versus evil, or vague notions of balances of power, rather than a sober and explicit conversation of our interests and the resources available to secure them.
There is a very understandable motivation for such a tendency. Politicians get blamed for whatever happens on their watch. It is why so many think George W. Bush is in some way responsible for the 9/11 attacks, or Barack Obama is in some way responsible for the current recession—even though both had their roots in processes and events from years before they came into office. Politicians are terrified of being blamed for something happening on their watch, and go to enormous extremes to avoid being seen as complacent whilst evil unfolds.
At the same time, many in office seem blithely unaware of the serious costs that accompany American meddling, along with a quasi-religious belief in the inherent ability of the U.S. military to accomplish all things. The resources needed to set up a no-fly zone over Libya, for example, are substantial, and run the very real risk of starting a shooting war with the Libyan military. Tragic though it may be to see Libyan protesters get bombed, the U.S. has no interest in risking its troops, equipment, or money to end the crackdown. The benefits simply don’t match the costs involved—and besides, that is not America’s fight. It is Libya’s fight. And what good would a no-fly zone do when there are still tanks and soldiers and secret police moving around? There’s no reason to believe a no-fly zone would be any more effective at stopping Qaddafi’s crackdown than it was in stopping Saddam Hussein’s own brutal repression of his people. In fact, we know that a NFZ was ineffective at doing that, since it didn’t stop it.
There are other things the U.S. government can do—cut off aid, end military-to-military cooperation, recall its ambassador—that are not coercive, per se, but do register American distaste at what the government is doing. The rebel areas in Libya are suffering rather severe food shortages (and it appears that Qaddafi is using a food embargo as a weapon to degrade the rebels’ ability to resist his military). The U.S. can supply food aid to the rebels, which can keep American investment in the civil unrest where it should be—minimal—while still making American preferences in outcome crystal clear.
The desire to take action—any action—in the face of what seems to be obvious evil is understandable and human. But it must be tempered with a sense of what is possible, wise, and in the country’s long-term interests. Sending in the military to do something militarily, which seems to be Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C of many in the government, just doesn’t make any sense.