That 'massacre' in Benghazi: A response to David Bosco

Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."

To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too.  But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.

Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.

Obviously, one can argue that any substantial loss of life is worth preventing, and that the United States and NATO were justified in intervening even if the number of people at risk was fairly small. Reasonable people can disagree about what level of human suffering is required before intervention is warranted, but the ultimate decision will always depend on a weighing of anticipated costs and benefits. By offering the most extreme forecast of what might have happened had we not intervened, President Obama was trying to tip the scale and make the benefits of his action look as large as possible. That's his prerogative, of course, but that doesn't mean we have to accept his assessment with our eyes closed.

And let's not forget that there are costs here, and not just to the rebel forces that NATO seems to keep hitting by mistake. Military operations are not cheap, and we may have to do a lot more if  regime change remains our objective. We may also be helping create a stalemate that will ultimately cost more Libyan lives than would have been lost in Benghazi, though there's no way to know that yet. We don't know how this operation will affect NATO's cohesion going forward, or what other problems may get neglected because the U.S. government is partly distracted by events in an otherwise minor power. So if Obama and his team did inflate the magnitude of the humanitarian danger that a rebel defeat would have created, then the real benefits of the decision to intervene are more modest and the cost-benefit calculus tips back the other way.

Where I agree with Bosco is his concluding point about the inherent ambiguity of the entire term "humanitarian crisis" and the desirability of firmer criteria and evidentiary standards when launching preventive humanitarian action. But I doubt it is possible to devise meaningful and political binding rules to guide future decisions, because they will always be context-dependent (i.e., we're more likely to act if we're not bogged down elsewhere), and because presidential decisions are also likely to be shaped by idiosyncratic factors, such as which advisors currently have their ear. And as the case of French president Nicolas Sarkozy suggests, enthusiasm for intervention may reflect domestic political woes, foreign policy embarrassments, and other extraneous elements. So while it would be nice to have a clear standard for when to get in and when to stay out, my guess is that such decisions will remain haphazard.  

In other words, I can't tell you where or when the U.S. will intervene for humanitarian purposes. But as long as my "Five Reasons" remain intact, it's a safe bet that we will, and more often than we should.

Stephen M. Walt

Would reintroducing the draft make the U.S. less interventionist?

In my previous post on "Top 5 Reasons America Keeps Fighting Foolish Wars," reason No. 3 was the All-Volunteer Force. To clarify my position, the AVF is neither necessary nor sufficient to explain the tendency to get involved in lots of conflicts. The United States fought some foolish wars when it had a draft (e.g., Vietnam), and countries with completely different systems of military service (e.g., the Soviet Union, Israel) have also waged foolish wars too.

Nonetheless, there is some social scientific evidence suggesting that reinstituting conscription would reduce mass public support for war, thus making it more difficult (though not impossible) for presidents to take the country to war or to sustain long campaigns.  A new article by Michael Horowitz and Matthew Levendusky of the University of Pennsylvania (forthcoming in the Journal of Politics but available in draft form here) reports the result of a survey experiment (N>2000) that tested respondents' support for war under different military manpower policies. The experiment shows that conscription has significant downward pressure on support for war. Money quotations:

We use original experiments to directly test the linkage between conscription and support for war, and find that mass support falls by 17 percent when there is a draft (relative to when there is an all-volunteer force), a finding that replicates in a number of different settings and scenarios.  Further, we also provide evidence that this shift is driven by self-interest: support falls most sharply among those who would most directly shoulder the burden of a draft (the young, who would themselves be drafted, and parents, who would see their children drafted)."

And their conclusion:

More generally our results show that the way the United States recruits its soldiers substantively influences public support for war in some situations. While it is far from the only factor, it is a significant factor, and one that must be taken into account in explanations of mass support for war. But beyond even the U.S. case, our results establish that how democracies staff their militaries has important implications for how the mass public supports wars."

It is of course possible that real-world political behavior might differ from the results of an on-line survey experiment. Nonetheless, the Horowitz/Levendusky study does suggest that the AVF is one of the background conditions that facilitates the frequent use of force by U.S. presidents.

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