Anti-Interventionism Is Cold Indifference?

Gary Chartier

Presidents frequently garner applause when they go to war. Violence as a knee-jerk response to a crisis—do anything, but do something!—is surprisingly popular. Pundits doubtless expect that they too will reap acclaim for urging action, whether or not it’s well considered. Who wants to be thought of as a bump on a log, after all?

It’s hard not to see something like that reasoning at work in Richard Cohen’s March 28 Washington Post column urging support for military intervention in Libya.

For Cohen anti-interventionism is a reflection of “cold indifference.” He seems oblivious to the dubious motives of empire-builders, to the propagandistic framing of the facts in the mainstream media, to the destruction for which NATO forces are responsible, to the questionable commitments of the rebels NATO is supporting, and to the resentment—with uncertain but perhaps deadly consequences—birthed in Libya and throughout the Middle East at the sight of more Western planes and troops killing and maiming Arabs. It is apparently possible to dismiss all of these concerns.

Contrary to the implicit message of Cohen’s column, action doesn’t always beat inaction. Not doing something can frequently make more sense than doing something—especially where war is concerned.

I’m not a pacifist—I certainly think it can be reasonable to use force to defend yourself or others from unjust attack. But I’m convinced there’s good reason to be very skeptical about wars made by States.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Politicians persistently initiate wars and carry them on for bad reasons: to secure glory and public acclaim, to steal resources, to benefit cronies, to demonstrate military might, to keep would-be allies from defecting. While wars are sold to the public as necessary to right wrongs, the motives ordinary people are offered through the government’s preferred media outlets are rarely those that drive war leaders themselves.

The practical effects of warfare, both domestically and abroad, are rarely positive. The victors extend their power, dominating and manipulating with greater impunity. The winners’ violence breeds ill will and resentment, potentially encouraging more wars, guerilla struggles, and terrorism. And governments use their engagement in warfare to excuse domestic repression and higher taxes and to promote conformity and uncritical loyalty.

Wars are almost always funded using taxation, so that people who do not support violent action are nonetheless compelled against their wills to provide the money needed to make it possible. Even to those who don’t oppose all taxation, it should be at least deeply troubling that people are forced to pay the costs of killing others and destroying their possessions.

And it’s absolutely vital to remember, despite the propaganda offered by war apologists, that modern warfare is typically prosecuted using unjust means. Noncombatants are routinely maimed, killed, and dispossessed by all-too-indiscriminate techniques employed by modern military forces. Aerial bombardment has an especially dismal record of destroying noncombatants’ lives and possessions, though it’s hardly the only source of harm to noncombatants. Preventable harm to them is a predictable outcome of initiating war.

The American founders generally recognized that war was dreadful. They also recognized that presidents might be entirely too quick to ignore war’s dreadfulness while seeking military glory. That’s why they imposed rigid constitutional restraints on acts of war undertaken by the U.S. government. While the president is empowered to direct the operations of the armed forces once a war is under way, only Congress is empowered to commit those armed forces to war. And Congress’s exclusive control over the government’s purse means that it is responsible for overseeing the direction of a war with an eye to its justice and prudence even after it has been declared.

Cohen compares skeptics about war in Libya to governments that declined in the late 1930s to admit Jewish refugees from Europe as the awfulness of anti-Semitic violence in Nazi Germany became increasingly clear, accusing both of apathy. But the comparison is inapposite. The governments that refused entry to refugees clearly acted unjustly by obstructing would-be immigrants’ freedom of movement. But while imposing restraints on movement across State borders can reasonably be criticized on multiple grounds, it is bizarre to suppose that people who oppose war can simply be dismissed as apathetic.

For Cohen, apparently, the notion that congressional approval is necessary to commit U.S. military forces to war is worthy of implicit mockery. (He treats the notion that “the United States had no business interfering in Libya—that it needed . . . permission from Congress” as simply a rationalization for indifference.) Perhaps he has secretly embraced Lysander Spooner’s conviction that the Constitution is “of no authority,” but nothing else he says suggests that he’s a closet anarchist. In any event, his glancing dismissal of the Constitution’s requirement that Congress declare war seems like the product not of critical questioning of the foundations of the American State, but rather of lack of concern with the features of warfare that make the congressional brake on presidential war-making so potentially important.

The mandate to intervene in Libya flows simply from the need to save lives, Cohen seems to suppose. He appears to uncritically accept the administration’s framing of the situation in Libya—assuming against the evidence that Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in fact intended to kill anyone and everyone in Benghazi, ignoring the lives likely to be lost as a direct result of NATO military action, attributing rather purer motives and long-term goals to the anti-Qaddafi rebels, and so expecting more respect for life on their part than I think the facts warrant.

Cohen maintains that the message the Libya intervention should send to any dictator is this: “Your people are not yours to kill.” He’s right of course that they’re not. But Libyans are not NATO’s to kill either. And they don’t belong to rebel commanders any more than they belong to Qaddafi. Similarly no other American belongs to Richard Cohen or John Boehner or Barack Obama, so no one can justly commit anyone else to fight in or pay for a war without her or his consent.

Perhaps—I offer no opinion here since I think alliances and implications are too unclear for anyone to speak with great confidence—a contemporary equivalent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade ought to be on the ground in Libya opposing tyranny and violence. But, contra Cohen, there is always reason to oppose governments when they intervene militarily outside the borders they claim, and further reason to do so when they fail even to follow their own procedures (presuming, as is true in the United States, that those procedures are designed to impede the hasty and ill-considered rush to war). War is hell, and impassioned calls to “do something” don’t change that fact.