Some random notes on Libya, while waiting for a clue

1. What happened to the “water’s edge” principle?
2. Not a good way to encourage non-proliferation.
3. If you support expensive humanitarian interventions that kill people, why not cheap humanitarian interventions that don’t kill people. Is it the killing you like, or is it spending lots of public money?

I haven’t the foggiest notion what the President should have done or should do about Libya; I’m not even sure what he is doing. So I’m going to comment on side-issues instead:

1. It was unfair to call opponents of the Iraq War “unpatriotic.” If they thought the war was a bad idea, it was patriotic to say so. Especially since they turned out to be right. On the other hand, the word “unpatriotic” seems to apply reasonably precisely to the Republicans who last week were denouncing Obama for not intervening in Libya and are now, as our planes are in the air, giving Gaddafi every possible signal that he is not in fact facing a United States of America.

2. One clear disadvantage of the intervention: We’ve now signaled all the tin-pot dictators in the world that there’s benefit in having nukes (N. Korea) and no protection from renouncing nukes. That’s not the signal we wanted to give.

3. And yes, it’s depressing that “conservatives” – and some liberals – oppose cheap humanitarian measures that don’t involve killing people, but have no problem with expensive humanitarian measures that do involve killing people. It’s not that Tomahawks directly compete with bed-nets, but it’s hard to figure out an argument for paying for Tomahawks but not bed-nets, if the point is to relieve human suffering.

If you support the Libyan venture but not bed-nets, is it the killing you like, or is it spending lots of public money?

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:

16 thoughts on “Some random notes on Libya, while waiting for a clue”

  1. How is it that Tomahawks don’t directly compete with bed-nets? Couldn’t the money used to buy the Tomahawks have been used to pay for bed-nets instead? The choice between guns and butter is a direct trade-off, as President Eisenhower said so correctly, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

  2. Look, this is a basic misunderstanding of the difference between intentional and non-intentional threats.

    Non-intentional threats can’t be deterred. The likelihood that they will strike does not depend on what we do, only their success in doing so.

    Intentional threats can be deterred. When bad guys understand the door is open, they’re going to walk through it. Period.

  3. Counterfactual, you have chosen your handle well. If you are a dictator, you can move money from Tomahawks to bed-nets. In the actual American political system, the money for Tomahawks won’t be voted for bed-nets. So it’s not as if any actual bed-nets won’t be bought because we intervened in Libya, or that any extra bed-nets will be bought with the money saved by not invading Iran. The objection is theoretical, not practical.

    Larry, everyone understands deterrence. So far, there’s not much evidence that Gaddafi, for example, was deterred by invading Iraq, but I suppose it might work. Still, since dictators as a group don’t kill as many people in a year as malaria does, it’s very hard to imagine that, on purely humanitarian grounds, a dollar spent on bullets is more effective than a dollar spent on bed-nets.

  4. …it’s hard to figure out an argument for paying for Tomahawks but not bed-nets, if the point is to relieve human suffering.

    To understand American policy you must understand Americans.
    We’ve been watching variations of Gunsmoke our whole lives.
    We’ve spent 1000s of hours of watching good guys with guns win the day against brutes.
    It’s the damn underlying theme of just about everything on the teevee and in the cinema.
    It’s who we are. It’s what we believe in. We are utterly encultured to believe that violence and guns work…

    And so I argue that the dramatic ruse know as Chekov’s gun has an upgraded place in American culture. Call it Happiness is a warm gun. And interpret it this way: A successful American drama must end with the heads of bad guys being blown off to great relief and even greater cheers. That’s just the way things are done around here…

    And as proof of that, please note that over 2000 Americans have been shot dead since Loughner lit up Tucson.
    See? 2000 problems gone just like that. Gun violence works. Just ask the common man in the street who is probably packing heat…

    So bed nets aren’t part of the equation Mark…
    But bad-nuts are. And things that go boom and rid us of them are too…
    There is no problem so big it can not be blown up to great fanfare.

    A good president realizes all this about his mother-culture and chooses his violence carefully.
    I believe Obama has chosen wisely here.
    In other words, I think this movie will have a happy violent ending. That this will help him get elected…
    And that anything that keeps the republicans out of the White House another 4 years is a good thing.
    The stakes are simply to high….
    We cannot let creationist who believe in talking snakes, disdain science, and think Global warming is a hoax, recapture the US Presidency.


    To the shores of Tripoli…
    The rockets red glare…
    And all that…

  5. Mark, the imperfection of deterrence isn’t an argument against it’s general efficacy. We don’t know what the world would be like if relatively sane people didn’t exercise force regularly against relatively insane people.

    Or maybe we do. Nazi Germany. Stalinist Russia. Somalia. I mean, I suppose it could be argued that the world is mostly different than that now. I think so. But I think so because I think that relatively sane people turn out to be in general more organized, focused, and effective than relatively insane people — including, specifically, more organized, focused, and effective in exercising force.

  6. Which is to say, I find it very easy to imagine that not spending a lot of dollars on bullets, and not being willing to use them, would lead to a world in which the kinds of humanitarian grounds you and I value wouldn’t even be under consideration.

    And I wonder what it is about the history of the world that makes you think otherwise. Although, to be honest, I suspect that when push comes to shove you don’t really think otherwise.

  7. Mark – Glad you like the name. Tell me what we would have spent the money on instead, and then let’s discuss the trade-off for that. If you say you are not sure what we would have spent the money on, then it could have been bed-nets after all 🙂 But if it makes you happier, let’s just say we could have spent it on something useful, and instead we did not, and that does represent a direct competition between goods.

  8. Mark: even if you think that Tomahawk money won’t be voted for bed nets (and it won’t, unless the DoD decides that a billion nets have to be stockpiled to protect soldiers from tropical diseases and then hands out 100 million of those a year because they’re past-date), in a world where government borrowing and spending can crowd out private spending the tradeoff is still there.

    Luckily, we’re currently in a liquidity trap, so no amount of spending on stuff that goes boom will affect the (minimal) amounts spent on stuff that doesn’t. (Indeed, insofar as making stuff go boom stimulates the economy…)

  9. “If you support the Libyan venture but not bed-nets, is it the killing you like, or is it spending lots of public money?”

    It’s the OIL.

    This has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

  10. I agree about Chuck Berry, but can’t agree with the comment. Koreyel has it right: it’s not the money, it’s the culture.

  11. There’s also a bit of cognitive sleight of hand: those missiles were just sitting around racking up maintenance hours before it was time to scrap them. It’s not as if they cost any money right now. And when the vote to replace them comes up, it will be about maintaining defense stockpiles, not about what anyone might have done or plan to do with the missiles in question.

  12. I know it’s asking a lot, but, at this point, could you guys either stop referring to Bush’s war crimes, or start asking the Hague to bring Obama up on charges? One or the other, take your pick, I’m not choosy.

  13. Speaking of partisan hackery…
    (Kleiman, 2010-05-04): “John McCain, who might have been elected President last year, thinks that according American citizens their constitutional rights is a “terrible mistake.”
    (Greenwald, Salon, 2011-04-24): “…the administration — and its followers — … defended the sanctity of Miranda back in late 2009, when the Cheney/Kristol/Limbaugh/Palin Right attacked Obama for Mirandizing the “underwear bomber” as soon as he was taken into custody. Back then, the White House and its loyalists stridently argued that Miranda does not interfere with effective interrogations and that, in any event, it is a pillar of our justice system that should not be eroded.”

  14. Brett, would you care to explain how carrying out a Security Council mandate counts as a “war crime”?

  15. Well, it’s a “war”, despite Obama and company calling it a “kinetic action”, if they haven’t come up with some new euphemism for “war” today, and as it wasn’t authorized by Congress, (Note the lack of any clause in the Constitution giving the Security council authority to declare war…) it’s a “crime”.

    I don’t think it’s a “war crime” in the traditional understanding of the phrase, myself. But I don’t think Bush committed any of those, either. Now, Clinton, way back when, arguably did, when he up and bombed that pharmaceutical plant. But that’s down the memory hole, isn’t it, and anyway, it was just an “aspirin factory”, despite all the other things it manufactured.

    All I’m asking for is some consistency. I don’t expect it, in any save a normative sense, but I’d appreciate it.

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