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What do we know about our commitment to Libya?

By Ezra Klein,

In this Sept. 1, 2009, file photo, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi gestures with a green cane as he takes his seat behind bulletproof glass for a military parade in Green Square, Tripoli, Libya. Gaddafi's son vowed his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet." (AP Photo/Ben Curtis) I didn’t find President Obama’s remarks on Libya comforting. The point of the speech, as I understood it, was both to announce that we were engaging but also assure America that our engagement was going to be limited. But consider the promises made. “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya.” Those two sentences are at war with each other. Protecting civilians might well require more than bombing runways. If Gaddafi is deposed and the state collapses into tribal warfare, does our pledge to resist ground troops trump our pledge to protect civilians? Or will it be the other way around?

In a speech (pdf) he gave in 2008, economist Joe Stiglitz lamented the poor and limited information Americans get before we enter wars. “My Nobel Prize was in the economics of information,” he said. “Information affects decisions.” Going to war is arguably the biggest decision a democracy makes, but it’s the one voters are usually given the least information about. The debate is often hasty and cramped, with dissenting voices marginalized as callously indifferent to foreign suffering. The cost projections — which were the topic of Stiglitz’s address — are either absent or misleading and incomplete. There’s much we simply can’t know, ranging from the success of the initial operation to the government’s true willingness to escalate — or, perhaps more importantly, its true willingness to accept that it has lost.

This post shouldn’t be read as a statement of opposition to military intervention in Libya. I don’t know enough to confidently make that call. But that’s precisely the problem: There’s very little information about what we are expecting to do or how much it will cost, but I suspect our commitment, once made, will actually be quite difficult to reverse. Presidents don’t like to lose wars. Americans don’t like to lose wars. Once Libya is our problem, it will stay that way. But if Libya becomes our problem — and it arguably already has — it will be before we have fully reckoned with the consequences of shouldering it, not after.

The easy response to this is to ask how I can be so diffident in the face of slaughter. But consider Obama’s remarks. “Left unchecked,” he said, “we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die.” Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could due to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?

There are a lot of possible answers, of course. Perhaps this intervention will prove a deterrent to other would-be Gaddafi’s. You can make a plausible case in that direction, but I just don’t know if it’s right. What I mainly heard in Obama’s remarks were statements about human rights — fair points all, but applied so inconsistently that they always make me skeptical. Will we take on Yemen, next? I doubt it, but I just don’t know. Indeed, there’s a lot I don’t know about this. Obama’s speech was an effort to convince me otherwise, but in that, it failed.

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