Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Both U.S. political parties are now split on the issue of our military adventure in Libya.

In general, Democrats reflexively support their president, except for those who reflexively oppose most assertions of American power. Republicans have been vacillating for decades. They were isolationist in the 1930s, then internationalist and hawkish during the Cold War. In 2000, George W. Bush ran against the idea of “nation building,” then in office fell into ambitious plans to build the nation of Iraq into a showcase for democracy and freedom. In their first debate this month, Republican presidential candidates swung back the other way, as some found themselves channeling George McGovern’s “come home America” theme from the Vietnam era.

Both parties, it’s safe to say, are confused. Why are we in Libya? Afghanistan? When should the U.S. use its military power? This seems like a good moment to state some general principles.

America is the world’s only superpower. That is good. Our most urgent obligation as a superpower is to stay that way. If America mismanages its affairs to the point where its military superiority is no longer axiomatic, the world will be the worse for it. When America acts, it does so with good intentions. Military actions by the U.S. may sometimes be a mistake, but they are not evil. Nor are the individual Americans on the other side of sometimes bitter foreign policy debates.

Approval Needed

Except in truly urgent circumstances, military action should have the approval of Congress. It isn’t good enough for a president to start hostilities and then demand that Congress go along in order to “support our troops.” The Constitution wisely gives Congress the power to declare war, a provision that recent presidents of both parties have ignored or tried to explain away. They have done something similar with the War Powers Resolution of 1973, a post-Vietnam attempt to codify the general language of the Constitution. It passed over Richard Nixon’s veto, and every president since has objected to it, while occasionally obeying it anyhow.

President Barack Obama’s approach has been typical. He says the War Powers Resolution doesn’t apply to our Libya involvement. His reasoning: The act refers to “introducing” American troops into “hostilities,” but there are no hostilities because we’re only attacking Muammar Qaddafi’s military regime from the sky and that regime can’t fire back. This isn’t serious. It is the argument of a lawyer not a leader.

Obviously, the U.S. should use its overwhelming military might when our nation is attacked. There was no significant opposition to chasing down al-Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks. Nor should there have been. When America’s interests are seriously threatened, of course America must act.

Values at Stake

The hard question is what if only American values -- freedom, democracy, human rights -- are threatened, or if an opportunity arises to establish those values somewhere new, as in the current Arab Spring. In such cases, we urge caution. America’s track record, from Vietnam to the Iraq War, vividly demonstrates that good intentions aren’t enough. War is too costly, in blood and money, and too uncertain in its outcome, to use merely because a genuine opportunity to do good has arisen.

We must concede honestly what this means: We are sometimes willing to let injustice fester, to see human rights crushed, to watch democracy die, rather than send U.S. soldiers to perish in faraway lands.

“Soft power” -- sanctions, information technology, propaganda, helping opposition groups, and so on -- is different. It should be allowed to do what it can do. We should never be afraid of speaking out in support of our values. And there will be opportunities and moral challenges -- imminent genocide, for example -- to which a military response will be, and should be, irresistible.

When and Where

We cannot say exactly when such occasions arise. We can say that consistency shouldn’t be a requirement. The answer to the inevitable question, “Why intervene here and not there?” is “It depends.” It depends on the circumstances, some of which will be political and unconnected to the moral case for intervention. In Libya, the answer was yes, but for Syria, sadly, it is no. The only totally consistent policy would be “never.” If we are willing to tolerate a more inconsistent policy, we may be able to do some good on occasion.

America is the indispensible nation (the phrase used by President Bill Clinton and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright) when it comes to using force. For better or worse, little is likely to happen if America doesn’t take the lead. We have no principled objection to unilateral action by the U.S. This nation must be prepared to act alone to protect its interests, and its values, too. But we should have a strong prejudice in favor of international support. Among other reasons, this is -- like the requirement of congressional approval -- a reality check. Maybe if the president can’t put together a posse, there’s a good reason.

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