It was so easy to imagine all that could go wrong if we didn’t act. It was so hard to imagine all that could go wrong if we did. But it’s always that way. The potentially awful consequences of inaction are more tangible and predictable than the potentially awful consequences of action. What “will” happen if we don’t intervene is so much more persuasive than what might happen if we do. And so the “wills” shout down the “mights,” at least until the first bomb falls in the wrong place or the first signs of armed and persistent resistance show themselves and what “might” happen suddenly becomes what is happening. Add a debate skewed toward action to the fact that war is rarely discussed in terms of its budgetary impact and often bypasses congressional debate totally, and the hardest decisions we make as a democracy are also the ones most insulated from a calm accounting of their likely costs, benefits and consequences.
This is a point I made in my original post on the intervention in Libya, and that gets made even more clearly in Leon Wieseltier’s response, which I hope, for his sake, to be an ill-timed self-parody. In reply to the question “Why Libya?,” he responds by saying, in essence, “Why not?” Faced with the argument that there are other humanitarian tragedies that are both far worse in scale and far easier to ameliorate, he calls this a “debater’s point” and compares those struggling with it to 20th-century Europeans who argued that “as long as France retained its colonial possessions it was morally disqualified from the struggle against Hitler.” As we’re less than a week into this intervention, I believe Wieseltier might have just set a land-speed record for Godwin’s Law violations. Congratulations to him.
Unfortunately, that, plus a bit of dismissive doggerel in which a literary editor argues that blogging is an insufficiently humanitarian vocation, concludes his response to the tough questions of Libya. The rest of his column is devoted to arguing that we should have intervened earlier and more forcefully. Perhaps unaware of how his words echo the “flowers and candy” predictions made about Iraq, Wieseltier goes so far as to say that if we had entered faster, in advance of the Arab League’s resolution, he has no doubt that the rebels “would have gratefully cried out the president’s name, even though we are in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The shock of that passage is perhaps exceeded only by Wieseltier’s closing line: “There is no historical shame, no historical cost, in delivering a city of 750,000 people, and a democratic revolt, from the brutal designs of a lunatic tyrant, and in being seen to be doing so. There is only honor.”
It is remarkable how much difficulty, how many things that could go wrong, how much potential blood and death and disaster are condensed into Wieseltier’s breezy promise that intervention in the Middle East can bring us nothing but honor. It is always a mistake, of course, to judge a policy by its advocates. And so I am trying to resist the impulse to oppose our policy in Libya simply because Wieseltier is so foolish in its defense. The truth is that for people who know little of Libya and have a record of being wrong about military intervention in the Middle East — a club to which both Wieseltier and I belong — a little humility is in order. But for Wieseltier, at least, humility is in short supply. It is too easy for him to imagine honor. It always is.