Obama’s Libya Speech: Why Consistency in Foreign Policy is Overrated.

In the president's Libya speech tonight, he'll have to deflect critics who ask why we're taking on Gaddafi—but not other murderous regimes. Peter Beinart on why consistency in foreign policy is overrated.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

There are plenty of smart objections to America’s Libya intervention. But when President Obama addresses the nation on Monday night, he should rebut the stupidest one: that America shouldn’t wage humanitarian war in Libya because we’re not doing so in Congo, Zimbabwe and every other nasty dictatorship on earth.

Leslie H. Gelb: Libya Speech Will Clarify Policy Eliza Griswold: Libya Rape Accuser MissingThe consistency argument, it’s important to understand, has nothing to do with Congo and Zimbabwe. Most of the people who invoke those ill-fated countries showed no interest in them before the Libya debate and will go back to ignoring them once Libya is off the front page. Ask someone who demands moral consistency in humanitarian war how exactly they propose to intervene in Congo and you will quickly realize that the call for moral consistency is actually a call for immoral consistency. The point of invoking the horrors of Congo is not to convince the US to act to stop the horrors of Congo; it is to ensure that, out of respect for the raped, murdered and maimed in Central Africa, we allow innocents to be raped, murdered and maimed in North Africa as well. The Congolese, presumably, will find it comforting to know that the great powers are as just as indifferent to savagery in other lands as they are to the savagery in theirs.

There will always be horrors that outside powers cannot or will not prevent. But the fact that they cannot be stopped everywhere is no reason not to try to stop them somewhere.

There is a serious argument against humanitarian intervention. It starts with the belief that international affairs is by nature tragic. Terrible things happen in distant societies but we do not really understand them, and so our efforts at amelioration either prove futile or actually make things worse. We think that because our motives are pure we can violate the norms of sovereignty that we guard jealously when it comes to our own affairs, but in so doing we open—or reopen—the door to a predatory imperialism that can do even greater harm. And finally, by spending money on distant lands we bankrupt our own.

What unites these arguments is a belief that foreign policy must be Hippocratic: First, do no harm. But the advocates of moral consistency cannot stomach this moral minimalism so they cloak it in moral maximalism: Rather than arguing against humanitarian war anywhere, they argue for it everywhere, which is a less honest way of saying the same thing.

But humanitarian war is not possible everywhere because war is never waged for humanitarian reasons alone. There is nothing strange or scandalous, for instance, about considering logistics. NATO is intervening in Libya in part because Libya lies relatively close to the NATO countries that are doing the intervening, as did Bosnia and Kosovo. That means the operation can be done more cheaply, at less risk to American and European lives, and with a greater chance of success, than in Zimbabwe or Congo. Those are all valid considerations, as valid as a doctor choosing to operate on the patient he has the best chance of saving.

Libya also resides in a more strategically important part of the world than do Congo and Zimbabwe. In intervening there, the US hopes not only to save innocent Libyans, but to bolster its reputation and relationships with the activists seeking to replace Gaddafi and his fellow tyrants in the oil-rich Middle East. To say that makes the Libya intervention immoral is like saying that covering the uninsured was immoral because Barack Obama hoped it would win him votes. It’s also true that NATO is intervening in Libya because, unlike say, Burma, is does not lie within the sphere of influence of a hostile great power. That’s also a pretty reasonable consideration if one wants humanitarian interventions to succeed, and not increase the risk of superpower war.

The point is that there is no purely moral position from which to judge international affairs. At best, moral concerns coincide with practical, self-interested ones. It may be that this nexus never offers much hope for a place like Congo. But that hope is probably slightly greater if the West intervenes—successfully—in Libya than if it does not. In the 1990s, after all, critics condemned the Bosnia intervention because the West was not stopping genocide outside Europe. It was in large measure because the West did stop genocide in Europe, however, that the world’s non-intervention in Rwanda was considered in retrospect such a disgrace. Spurred by the memory of Rwanda, activists from around the world drew attention to the killing in Darfur. And now, in part because of that widening circle of outrage, NATO is doing in North Africa what fifteen years ago critics charged it would do only in Europe.

There will always be horrors that outside powers cannot or will not prevent. But the fact that they cannot be stopped everywhere is no reason not to try to stop them somewhere. And showing that they can be stopped somewhere—first in Bosnia and Kosovo, hopefully now in Libya—may make dictators pause to reflect that they could be next. That’s moral progress, which in the ugly, real world is a pretty impressive thing.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.