This weekend, the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol editorialized promptly in favor of the newly-launched American military campaign against the regime of Muamar Gaddafi. I have always been grateful that the Standard has, to my knowledge, been consistently pro-life from the beginning, and that it has often published insightful and respectful pieces on Catholic leaders such as John Paul II (including this nice piece by Kristol himself). Nevertheless, there are some problems with Kristol’s argument.
In the first place, Kristol suggests that the Libya intervention should be understood as America’s fifth altruistic war of “Muslim liberation” in the last two decades and also as part of a proud and unbroken tradition of freedom-promoting Republican foreign policy – a tradition that proceeds from Reagan to Bush I, to Dole, to Bush II, and finally to McCain. It is not clear, however, that the tradition is as consistent as he says. No doubt the Republican Party has long favored some kind of promotion of freedom through American foreign policy. But Ronald Reagan did not commit the American military to any wars of “Muslim liberation.” For that matter, with the small exception of Grenada aside, Reagan did not commit the American military to any wars of liberation at all. Rather, he chose to build American military strength and project American resolve and clarity of moral vision, while putting various forms of pressure short of war on America’s unfree adversaries. And while the first President Bush did lead the effort to roll back Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait, he pointedly refused to involve America in any attempt to liberate Iraq itself from the rule of Saddam Hussein – a decision for which he has been criticized by some promoters of the freedom agenda in foreign policy. Those critics held that Bush I had failed to “finish the job” in Iraq. That criticism, however, looked more powerful before America had discovered how much it would cost and how long it would take to finish that job. In any case, it is not at all obvious that the Libya mission is part of a consistent modern Republican foreign policy.
Second, Kristol sets the terms of the debate in a way that is artificially favorable to such interventions. He invites “the worriers and the withdrawers” to make a case against America’s wars of Muslim liberation in the Middle East, while also admonishing them not to rely demagogically on the public’s frustration and weariness with difficult and long wars. But is it the opponents of such action that are especially obliged to make the case against it? Kristol writes as if the good of intervening in order to promote freedom is so obvious as to be the default position, while the opponents of such things are to be invited to make a case, if they can, against it. Just as a defendant is held to be innocent until proven guilty, so, apparently, an American military intervention is to be held beneficial until proven otherwise. But one could just as reasonably demand the opposite presuppositions: for example, that intervening in another country’s civil war is generally a bad idea unless someone can come up with powerful reasons to do it.
Finally, the waging of wars of “Muslim liberation” is surely far more problematic than Kristol supposes. With the exception of America’s Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999, wars of “Muslim liberation” seem usually to involve liberating some Muslims from other Muslims. Which is to say that wars of “Muslim liberation” involve, as in Libya, the killing of Muslims. Can we be certain that Muslims will uniformly regard this as a favor?