A liberal conundrum

So, Libya, huh? I’m not sure what the record is for number of simultaneous wars in the Middle East, but we sure are gunning for it pretty hard. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite sure what to think about our little North African squabble. Conflicts like these pull — in opposite directions — on some of the fundamental impulses in the liberal mind. Like many liberals, I find myself stuck in a state of confused ambivalence, unable to form a strong opinion. On the one hand, intervening in Libya satisfies a number of liberal instincts. Liberals have, more or less, been strong supporters of the current wave of Arab revolutionary movements. And, of course, there’s the always-present desire to promote human rights. Gaddafi’s indiscriminate repression plays hard on those feelings.  Liberals are also, generally, not fatalistic about these things. If there is a problem, well, do something about it! But there, my friends, is the rub. What if that “something” is war? At that point, you have the ultimate smackdown between two of liberalism’s most cherished principles — human rights and nonviolence. During which, we’re all rendered hopelessly indecisive. The last time I felt this disorienting tension was during the peak of Darfur activism. T-shirts certainly weren’t going to halt the Janjaweed militias, but it wasn’t entirely clear what could, short of military action. Liberal activists resolved this tricky dilemma by relying solely on vague, “Save Darfur”-esque mantras. We need, of course, a better alternative. I say, let the present crises be our guide. We are now committed to Libya. Let’s squeeze every drop of wisdom out of the situation as possible. Our airstrikes have received about as positive a stamp of approval as the international community is capable of giving. The U.N. is on board, the United Kingdom and France have contributed enough to make this a genuinely multilateral conflict, and even the Arab League issued a tentative OK. If we can’t bring peace and stability to Libya under these conditions, it will be a pretty damaging mark against future intervention. If, however, we succeed in bringing human rights and order to Libya, intervention should remain on the table — at least for select and appropriate cases. We’ll probably never find the perfect balance between humanitarianism and nonviolence. But, with a little well-concentrated effort, we can have a better idea of their likely conclusions. Then, in the future, we can come out, one way or the other, strong.