War of Ideas (or Why We Went to War, Part II)

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The U.S. is engaged in a dangerous conflict over Libya and no doubt the president decided to intervene and is prosecuting the war first and foremost in pursuit of the aims he outlined in his “casus belli” paragraph last Friday: preventing atrocities and a humanitarian crisis, averting regional destabilization, and blunting a threat to democratic movements elsewhere.

But Obama went to war in support of larger ideas and he is prosecuting the war that way as well. The last item in his case for war Friday was that if the U.S. didn’t act, “The words of the international community would be rendered hollow.” Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council later explained that Obama meant to ensure “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this.”

Yesterday in Chile the president himself argued that the U.S. was acting in support of an idea. “The core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community almost unanimously says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy, decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can’t simply stand by with empty words; that we have to take some sort of action.”

Obama’s staff is very uncomfortable with the notion of going to war for an idea and were bitterly critical of my post yesterday (though they declined to say anything for the record). They shouldn’t be. It’s hardly the first time America went to war in part for an idea. A central element of the argument for going to war in Iraq was to uphold multiple U.N. resolutions (that is, the idea of international law). But the staffers have a larger problem on their hands, which is that Obama not only went to war in part for an idea but is limiting the prosecution of the war in support of an idea as well. And explaining that intellectual approach to a baffled public is hard.

American policy is that Gaddafi should be removed from power. But Obama is interpreting U.N. resolution 1973, which authorized the intervention, to stop short of green-lighting Gaddafi’s removal. He believes it only allows military action to protect civilians. Therefore, he explained yesterday, “when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of U.N. Security Resolution 1973. That specifically talks about humanitarian efforts. And we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate.” So no targeting Gaddafi with smart bombs or ousting him with special forces.

The British apparently disagree with that interpretation, but for U.S. political purposes, what matters is that Obama is again acting to strengthen an idea: that international limits apply when one goes to war. Of course, that’s not a very controversial idea either. The U.S. has long supported the Geneva conventions and the laws of war. But George W. Bush embraced interrogation techniques the U.S. had previously said were illegal, used of force outside a U.N. mandate and refused to comply with elements of the Geneva conventions, like providing access to the ICRC to prisoners. So Americans may have forgotten that the U.S. once played strictly by the rules of international law. (Of course, Bush was acting in support of an idea as well: that international constraints on the U.S. were a threat to its national security).

It doesn’t help the president or his aides that Democrats have been attacked as national security wussies for decades. It also doesn’t help that some Republicans criticize Democrats for pursuing what they say is an overly legalistic, as opposed to martial, way of fighting terrorists.

But whether it likes it or not, the administration will have to defend the ideas guiding this war: that the power to prevent atrocities is important and that just as we impose limits on how our police use force at home, there are limits on how our troops use force abroad. Indeed the only way the administration can defend the specific limits it is choosing to adhere to in Libya is by defending the ideas behind them. It is short-sighted and also a losing proposition to pretend we are not fighting for ideas. Popular support depends on explaining why they are worth fighting for.