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More Questions Than Answers

Obama, Libya, and the dubious ethics of modern air wars.

Fittingly enough, the world’s first airstrike came exactly a century ago, on an autumn day in 1911. Eerily enough, it came in Libya, where, one day during the Italian-Turkish war of 1911-1912, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti flew his paper-thin Taube monoplane over a camp of Turks and Arabs, dropped four hand grenades (having pulled the pins out with his teeth), and generated headlines such as this: “AVIATOR LT. GAVOTTI THROWS BOMB ON ENEMY CAMP. TERRORIZED TURKS SCATTER UPON UNEXPECTED CELESTIAL ASSAULT.” (The bombs, an inquiry later found, fell dependably on Libyan sand, but the message got through: The men below scattered in terror.)

The episode jibes neatly with photos from the intervention in Libya, depicting a shabbily outfitted African mercenary lying dead by the side of road, presumably felled by a fusillade of American military technology—cruise missiles that all but stop and take left-turns—whose prowess lay beyond his imagination. Given this latest display, how many times must the Battle of Omdurman be replayed before we begin to argue about the lopsidedness of America’s wars, the asymmetry that permits and even encourages these wars, and the truth that, absent such capabilities, we would enjoy far less room to maneuver on the international scene?

The assault on Libya, after all, provides the clearest illustration of the role that the United States currently assigns its military strength and, more than that, the ease with which it does so. Given that weapons launched from a distant remove—and, therefore, with minimal risk (to our side, at least)—may increase the propensity of political leaders to resort to violent means casually and without due reflection, does their use not count as an act of war? Does it not impose certain ethical obligations on the American politicians who, over the past two decades alone, have launched aerial strikes against targets in Sudan, Yemen, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya? If the point of the exercise is to send a “message,” as indeed the Obama team claims to be the point in Libya, how many people may one justly kill in the process? To judge by the substance and tenor of deliberation that preceded this week’s attacks, the answer to these urgent questions would seem to be: whatever.

In practical and ethical terms, the air campaign in Libya, just days old, has already been tested and found wanting. We have been here before. Most sloppily in Kosovo, where we bombarded the enemy (and the population) for months, without losing a single American life and to the point that even Henry Kissinger began to despair of the steep moral price. Uncharacteristically (this from the architect of the massive Christmas bombing of North Vietnam) and rightly (Kissinger learned his realism from Hans Morgenthau, not Stephen Walt), the former secretary of state objected to the notion that “our moral principles stop at 15,000 feet,” while John Cardinal O’Connor of New York—a former Marine chaplain in Vietnam—wondered if “we can say with integrity that this kind of bombing includes only ‘surgical strikes,’ without serious danger of indiscriminate destruction, including the deaths of innocent human beings.” The obvious answer was no. A war fought in the name of humanitarian principles had been engaged with less than full regard to humanitarian principles. Missiles fired from afar struck convoys of innocent civilians, demolished houses, blasted a hole in the Chinese Embassy, and even landed in the wrong country (Macedonia).

We have been here before and, after a decade of low-tech ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are here again. Even as the Libya buildup proceeded—with everything ostentatiously revealed except H-hour and the actual target plan—an Obama paradigm began to assert itself. In order to ensure the safety of the Libyan opposition, would the administration use ground forces? Absolutely not. Even with precision weapons, could air power alone actually defeat Qaddafi’s entire army? Probably not. Would the administration consider targeting those elements, such as Qaddafi family members, that sustained the dictator’s hold on power? Not really, given the likelihood of U.S. losses. Instead, the Obama team would hand off command of the war “in days, not weeks,” assured National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon. Thus, the administration argued itself into a “surgical” campaign of a few days and whose exact purpose remains unclear.

In case we didn’t get the point, Donilon added, “This-is-a-limited-in-scope-duration-and-task-operation.” Which is to say, limited in scope, duration, purpose, and effect. (When the Clinton administration readily conceded the initiative to its adversary in Kosovo, it elicited howls. When the Obama administration does the same thing, it’s offered up as proof of reasonableness.) By the description of its architects, the Libya campaign aims to minimize the risk of casualties, intends to avoid collateral damage, attempts to preclude any possibility of meaningful retaliation or the danger of a quagmire skirts moral ambiguities, and looks to achieve its desired effect through suasion rather than brute strength. This episode, members of the Obama team keep assuring us, is not to be confused with waging war, a concept that is antiquated and obsolete. Never mind that the administration’s insistence upon such distinctions could point either to embarrassing failure or unwanted escalation. The aim is to send a “message,” which the president summarizes as this: “The writ of the international community must be enforced.” Here, military force is not merely an extension of diplomacy. Instead, force has become all but indistinguishable from diplomacy.

The absence of any intent to compel our adversary to do our will or to destroy the instrument of aggression—much less to pursue anything resembling an old-fashioned “victory”—seemingly offers politicians and military planners a long menu of options. Thus, violence, strictly controlled and carefully limited, really does become akin to a message, albeit one rendered with particular sharpness. To deliver the message, one mailbox will serve just as well as another. Echoing the president, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice declared that the authorization to use force “should send a strong message to Colonel Qaddafi and his regime that the violence must stop.”

That the wider scope of action permitted by this loose definition of purpose is illusory remains beside the point. The haziness permits the president and his chief associates to offer assurances that any military action will be painless, cheap, and over before it even begins. “After the air is cleared of any threats,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin assured Sunday TV viewers, “there’s going to be a handoff to our allies, and this mission will then carried on by French, by British, and by Arab countries.” Voila.

According to Clausewitz, if not Levin, war can have one of two purposes. Either “the objective is to overthrow the enemy—to render him politically helpless or militarily incompetent … or [it is] merely to occupy his frontier districts … so we can use them for bargain at the peace negotiations.” The campaign against Libya abjures both. Pace Obama, it is certainly not about war. Indeed, and as he’s made abundantly clear, it’s rooted in a determination to unshackle decisionmakers from war’s iron logic, to devise a new methodology for employing American military power, purposefully and effectively and yet with minimal risk and minimal uncertainty. Thus, the aim of the assault has been neither to overthrow nor to bargain. The actual purpose has been far more modest: to educate. Missiles would inform Qaddafi that his meddling about in Benghazi was unacceptable, letting him know, in the president’s words, “Actions have consequences.” Writing as early as 1993, Thomas Friedman observed, “Whether in Iraq, Somalia, or Bosnia, America’s military commitments are increasingly being defined by the risk-free weapons available, not just strategic goals.” The statement remains disturbingly accurate—without the word “just.”

The practical danger here is that the Obama team may work itself into an untenable position. According to the administration’s own scorecard, it’s the not the integrity of the coalition formed to contain Qaddafi nor the safety of the coalition-established enclave that matters, but the hours until American participation draws to an end. Yet there is also a moral question on the table: Does launching missiles and bombs from a far-away remove provide an ethically persuasive basis for taking life? For the practice of statecraft through the (militarily advanced) West, this is an increasingly problematic issue, nowhere more than among Obama’s constituents on the left. If a dead African mercenary doesn’t make the point, recall the sensitivities aroused by the images of the so-called Highway of Death in the waning hours of Operation Desert Storm.

Perhaps those sensitivities are bogus. But, for now, this much at least is evident: By advancing the fiction that its military initiatives are distinct from war per se, the Obama team in some sense forfeits the state’s traditional claim that it possesses the authority to kill. And, once the justification for force derives from some basis other than the prerogative of one sovereign state to wage war against another, principles such as proportionality and discrimination—among other things, the two bedrock principles of the U.S. Military Code of Conduct—lose some of their meaning. Put another way: Given the risk-free weapons on which we are relying today, how many people is it permissible to kill merely to send a message? To protect the life of one American pilot, how much collateral damage can one inflict?

Air wars—that is, wars that privilege American lives—comfort my American sensibilities, all the more after covering an American ground war. But they provide no adequate response to the cosmopolitan stand. The insistence on using force as a medium for negotiating between elites; the resort to military action as a surrogate for strategic coherence; the inflated expectations to be gained  from “surgical” strikes—if it becomes grounded in fantasy, the air campaign over Libya could easily turn gray.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.