On Libya: 'What Happens Then?'

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By James Fallows

(See UPDATE below)
BEIJING, China -- I am in the middle of other things here in China and am not a Libya expert. But this is a moment when people in any form of public life (ie, including the commentariat) are supposed to be counted rather than clamming up and waiting to see how things turn out. So I am interrupting my guest posters one more time, to say:

Count me among those very skeptical of how this commitment was made and where it might lead.

How it was made: it cannot reassure anyone who cares about America's viability as a republic that it is entering another war with essentially zero Congressional consultation or "buy-in," and with very little serious debate outside the Executive Branch itself. And there the debate was, apparently, mostly about changing the President's own mind. I recognize that there are times when national safety requires an Administration to respond quickly, without enduring the posturing and institutionalized dysfunction that is the modern Congress. Without going through all the arguments, I assert that this is not such a moment. To be more precise: the Administration has not made the public case that the humanitarian and strategic stakes in Libya are so unique as to compel intervention there (even as part of a coalition), versus the many other injustices and tragedies we deplore but do not go to war to prevent. I can think of several examples in my current part of the world.

I didn't like the "shut up and leave it to us" mode of foreign policy when carried out by people I generally disagreed with, in the Bush-Cheney era. I don't like it when it's carried out by people I generally agree with, in this Administration.

Where it might lead: The most predictable failure in modern American military policy has been the reluctance to ask, And what happens then? We invade Iraq to push Saddam Hussein from power. Good. What happens then? Obama increases our commitment in Afghanistan and says that "success" depends on the formation of a legitimate, honest Afghan government on a certain timetable. The deadline passes. What happens then? One reason why Pentagon officials, as opposed to many politicians, have generally been cool to the idea of "preventive" strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities is that many have gone through the exercise of asking, What happens then?

Launching air strikes is the easiest, most exciting, and most dependably successful stage of a modern war, from the US / Western perspective. TV coverage is wall-to-wall and awestruck. The tech advantages are all on our side. Few Americans, or none at all, are hurt. It takes a while to see who is hurt on the ground.

But after this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Qaddafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don't? What happens when a bomb lands in the "wrong" place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging "flaws" and "abuses" in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be "days, not weeks" cannot "decently" be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources -- or their domestic support -- and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined?  I usually do not agree with Peggy Noonan, but I think she is exactly right in her recent warning* about how much easier it is to get into a war than ever to get out. I agree more often with Andrew Sullivan, and I share his frequently expressed recent hopes that this goes well but cautions about why it might not. (Jeffrey Goldberg has asked a set of similar questions, here.)

Like Andrew, I hope to be proven wrong in these concerns. I hope the results are swift, decisive, merciful, and liberating, and that they hasten the spread of the Arab Dawn. But I assert that it is much better to be proven wrong in that way, and to have thought too much about "What happens then?" possibilities -- than to have thought too little about them, which I fear we have done. 
___
* From Noonan's column: "America has to be very careful where it goes in the world, because the minute it's there--the minute there are boots on the ground, the minute we leave a footprint--there will spring up, immediately, 15 reasons America cannot leave. The next day there will be 30 reasons, and the day after that 45. They are often serious and legitimate reasons. "  Contrast this with people whose failure of tragic imagination was so disastrous in Iraq now urging a rush into Libya.

UPDATE: Who could possibly have seen this coming? March 20, Reuters: "West's strikes in Libya hit Arab League criticism" More here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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