Recently Obama spoke about his decision to commit US troops to assist the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi. His choice, he said, was difficult, but clear: to prevent a slaughter of Libyan protestors, military action against Gaddafi’s forces was essential. The US cannot intervene everywhere, but when we can act to support freedom, we must. To do otherwise would be a violation of the core principles and beliefs of America.
Maybe Obama was right. But to me, the decision was not so clear. After all, these weren’t peaceful protestors, as in Egypt: these were rebels, soldiers, who were defending themselves. Obama said we were preventing a slaughter, but really we are taking sides in a civil war. And we don’t really know who these rebels are: recent reports indicate at least some ties to al-Quaeda (is anyone really surprised?) and other Islamist groups. Not to mention, if the rebels fail to defeat Gaddafi outright, how much further will we be drawn into the fighting? Are we going to be stuck trying to build a third Muslim nation? Obama emphasizes that we’re not going it alone here, we have lots of allies, America is not in charge — which is all fine, except of course it limits our control of the situation. And will all of this improve the “Arab street’s” opinion of America, or make it worse? There’s no way to know. To me, it is not clear at all that military intervention was the best course.
But I think there’s a bigger question here, one Obama didn’t even mention. Why are we in this situation? Why are we having to make this choice? How did we get backed into a corner of having to choose between a possible slaughter and a possible quagmire? And even more importantly: how can we avoid it in the future?
Here’s what I think. Obama’s right in one thing: we cannot violate our core principles — as Americans, and as human beings. But we got into this because we did violate those principles. And what are those principles?
Principles of Humane Action
We have to ask ourselves: what manner of world do we want to see? I use the word ‘manner’ specifically because the manner in which we do things is essential.
“We are so anxious to achieve some particular end that we never pay attention to the psycho-physical means whereby that end is to be gained. So far as we are concerned, any old means is good enough. But the nature of the universe is such that ends can never justify the means. On the contrary, the means always determine the end.” — Huxley
In order to give the means the proper weight in our considerations, we must take a step back from our goals. Instead of thinking about ends — exit strategies, “democracy in the Middle East,” etc. — we must hold processes and means in mind. What means do we want to see at work in the world? How do we want the world to work? Those are the means we must use towards our ends.
And I do not think there is much disagreement in principle on what kinds of means we would like to see. We wish people to use cooperation, or friendly competition. We wish to see peace rather than war. We wish to see distributed power rather than concentrated power: in society, as in nature, power concentrated in one place is unstable, and tends to disperse in disruptive ways. We wish to see people participating in determining the shape of their own lives, rather than having their fates decided for them. We wish to see initiatives from the grassroots, rather than having goals and means handed down from on high. These principles underlie not only American democracy, but most pagan traditions, and our deepest human nature.
Where Did We Go Wrong?
So in Libya today, why do we face a choice between evils? Mostly, of course, this is Gaddafi’s fault. But we can’t fix him by waving a magic wand; we can only change ourselves. And we are here, facing this choice, because we violated our core principles again and again as we rose to a world power.
During WWII, we felt we had no option but to build a tremendous military force to defeat the fascists. After WWII, we felt we had no option but to keep building that military force as a deterrent against the Soviet Union. After all, military intervention worked against Hitler, so we assumed it would always work everywhere. And anyway, it was profitable for our military industrial complex.
But in fact, a huge military by its very nature violates our core American and human principles. It is not an organization for cooperation or friendly competition; it is not peaceful; it concentrates power, instead of distributing it; it’s hierarchical, not grassroots. Perhaps we did need a huge military, for a while. But throughout the Cold War, our greatest efforts should have been towards drawing that military down, and exploring other options for promoting world peace and cooperation.
Because such options exist. What if we had worked toward establishing the UN as a true global organization for peace, instead of a factory for the cloaks of legitimacy we need for our military interventions? What if we had devoted as many resources to the Peace Corps as we had to the Marine Corps? What if we had put 50% of our discretionary spending towards encouraging charities, non-profits, and other non-governmental organizations around the world, instead of building enough ICBM’s to destroy the Soviets hundreds of times over?
We don’t really know, because we didn’t even consider those options. Instead, we built one big hammer, and the whole world looks like a nail; and it seemed that our only options in Libya were to use the hammer, or not.
We need to find ways of downsizing that hammer, and dispersing its power. We need to start creating other options. There are dozens of organizations working towards peace and understanding in the Middle East. We need to support them, and we need to create an environment that fosters more of them. Otherwise, no matter how dearly we hold our principles, the world will always be a bed of nails.