Is it possible that Obama & Co. are right about Libya?

Juan Cole – an accredited expert, and no unthinking hawk – certainly seems to think so.

As I’ve said before, I have no right to an opinion about what’s going on in Libya. I’d like to believe that the President has chosen to do the right thing, both because I admire him politically and because – unlike, apparently, the entire leadership of the Republican Party – I’d like to see my country come out of this with credit rather than ignominy.

Also, I do have a strong prejudice against genocide, and when a dictator already up to his elbows in blood has his supporters sing songs about “disinfecting” the country of his opponents (referred to as “germs”) it’s not unreasonable to suspect that something genocidal is in the works.

So while it’s possible that the near-consensus against the intervention in Left Blogistan is correct, I’d prefer to believe otherwise. And it turns out that Juan Cole, who certainly is entitled to an opinion and who is anything but a reckless hawk, regards the case for intervention as airtight:

Pundits who want this whole thing to be over with in 7 days are being frankly silly. Those who worry about it going on forever are being unrealistic. Those who forget or cannot see the humanitarian achievements already accomplished are being willfully blind.

Update Nick Kristof offers two interesting facts:

1. At least some U.S. servicemembers are indeed being “welcomed as liberators” in Libya.

2. Before the establishment of the No-Fly Zone, refugees were streaming across Libya’s border with Egypt. Now they’re streaming back.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

14 thoughts on “Is it possible that Obama & Co. are right about Libya?”

  1. I think it’s quite possible that they’re right about Libya, which does not excuse being wrong about Presidents being entitled to start wars without obtaining the permission of Congress.

  2. I just wonder why the F-16s aren’t flying over Ivory Coast. Or Southern Sudan. Or Yemen. Or Bahrain. Or Madison. Are we still on the PNAC doctrine for stability?!

  3. These humanitarian impulses would be a lot more convincing if the nation weren’t “broke” and in the process of reducing its deficit on the backs of Americans who have lost jobs or had their income drastically reduced. Who is going to pay the bill for the billions that this intervention is costing? Why, the people here who can least afford it, of course. Maybe they should have been consulted before their plight was made even worse by this oh so necessary operation in Libya.

  4. The question isn’t really “are they right?”; no one can know the future. The question is, are they likely to be right, and does a probability-weighted cost/benefit analysis indicate it was a good idea?

    Despite all the rhetoric about “Libya isn’t Iraq,” I think any reasonable Bayesian prior in this instance is going to be heavily weighted towards “not a good idea.”

  5. Brett Bellmore wrote, “…which does not excuse being wrong about Presidents being entitled to start wars without obtaining the permission of Congress.”


  6. I wonder what is the fraction of society that thinks “I refuse to do the right thing because it will cost me money”. If would be fascinating to do some cross-refs on voter preferences during the analysis.

  7. Agreeing with Brett here (not a precedent!).

    Somebody put it this way “the only vote that mattered was in Presdient Obama’s head; the rest of us were just along for the ride”.

  8. I’m pleased to see this rare community of agreement (excepting Professor Klieman). Now what? What reasonably likely optimistic policy do you’all support (not that that makes any difference to the administration’s actual policy)? After some pilot accidentally-on-purpose drops a bomb on Gadaffi, and his foreign mercenaries have no one to sign their payment vouchers, then what? It won’t look like Iraq (more desert, fewer people), but legally, what?

  9. ” . . . which does not excuse being wrong about Presidents being entitled to start wars without obtaining the permission of Congress.”

    It’s not a “war.”

    If it is a “war,” then there is no military action a president could take that would not constitute a “war.”

    And if that is the case, then the president could not take action even to defend the country from an extant attack without obtaining Congress’ permission, since the Constitution contains no express exception from a requirement that war be declared by Congress, including in response to an attack.

    And if you respond that there is an implied exception or that such action is within the inherent powers of the CIC, then it is equally permissible to find that these circumstances fall within such an exception or implied power, because the Constitution necessarily does not articulate any restrictions on implied exceptions or powers, which can only be limited to the whims of interpretation on which you can agree or disagree, but which you cannot prove to be constitutionally required, particularly if you insist on fidelity to the text of the Constitution.

    For a constitutional textualist or originalist, either the president has unfettered power to act militarily without congressional permission or he has no such power.

  10. David in Texas wrote “It’s not a “war.””

    Of course it’s a war. The actions taken by the so-called coalition are acts of war.

  11. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 (50 U.S.C. 1541–1548) was a United States Congress joint resolution providing that the President can send U.S. armed forces into action abroad only by authorization of Congress or if the United States is already under attack or serious threat…. The War Powers Resolution requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.

    In actual effect, the War Powers Resolution has been taken to allow the President to take any military action and then request permission from the Congress later. I think it’s a terrible practice.

  12. So ah, this whole thing convinces me that us liberals are hopelessly disorganized and not very disciplined thinkers. In isolation I suspect Obama and Kleiman are roughly right. For fairly small and low risk military involvement we can neutralize the biggest technological advantage of a plainly brutal and insane dictator, giving real freedom fighters a real chance at having their voice heard. Great!

    So what of the arguments against? So far I’ve heard:
    1) This is expensive and we’re broke. Waaaahh!
    2) War Powers! Imperial presidency! Unconstitutional!

    Bleh. Both of these arguments, especially coming from the left, are just artifacts of a collective short attention span.

    The broke argument isn’t terribly compatible with all the other positions the left is taking (wrt health care, stimulus, AGW regulation, etc. On all these other issues the left’s position has generally been: The government has a cash flow issue because we are fighting an internal battle about wealth distribution and the importance of people who don’t own their own personal congress-critter. The society is not broke, and indeed can and should be making sound investments in its own future and the future of people all over the world whose plights can be readily improved. On the surface this intervention passes the general lefty philosophy, so all the bleating is just confusion.

    The war powers stuff is interesting but it’s largely a settled discussion. Even though the concept is troublesome, there’s a strong precedent that a president can independently authorize limited acts of war, especially in furtherance of UN resolutions. On the surface this intervention passes that test too.

    The real questions here are deeper, and if the left was what it pretends to be we should be educated enough as a group to ask some more fundamental questions and pursue more strategic aims:
    1) 20+ years after the end of the Cold War we still have no guiding principles that we can talk about publicly for when we interveen in oppression and when we don’t. We _do_ have a track record though, and it tells a nasty tale. We are in fact following a strict set of principles in our intervention/non-intervention choices and those principles are ugly. We interveen when oil supplies are threatened or when it would be a PR disaster not to. In the case of oil supplies, we back the oppressor if world conventional wisdom will let us get away with it, and we proclaim general interest of mankind stuff and back the people when world conventional wisdom makes the oppressors look bad. If the left had balls and brains to match our supposed aims we’d talk about this a lot.
    2) The growth of Imperial power in the Oval Office is scary and dangerous, but why waste time on a bad test case of settled decisions? If you remove the precedent of GWB, Obama has the worst civil rights record of a president in recent memory. Why aren’t we talking about ongoing extraordinary rendition, detainee abuses, and outright torture? Decent men can disagree about the bounds of presidential war powers, but nobody worthy of their warm bed and three meals a day should be able to question the rights of foreign citizens to be secure in their persons against kidnapping and by rogue international powers.

  13. “The growth of Imperial power in the Oval Office is scary and dangerous, but why waste time on a bad test case of settled decisions? “

    The world does not promise us good test cases, to wait for them is sometimes to wait until it’s too late. And people who don’t want decisions challenged will always refer to them as settled.

    “If you remove the precedent of GWB, Obama has the worst civil rights record of a president in recent memory.”

    If you remove the thumb on the scale partisans on all sides employ when judging who’s worse, this is far from clear. But for the sake of argument I’ll agree to think they’re equally bad…

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