Moving the Bounds of the Possible

When it comes to humanitarian interventions like the one taking place in Libya right now, I tend to favor an “airdropping cash” heuristic. Military intervention is expensive. Military intervention using the US armed services, the most costly security force in the history of the world, is really, really expensive. Chances are that, in most cases, calculating the amount of money a military intervention would cost and then airdropping that amount in cash over the relevant country (or, better still, a poorer country) would be better for human welfare than undertaking the intervention. It’s possible to imagine cases where this isn’t true; Bosnia and Kosovo were borderline cases, and an intervention in Rwanda very well could have passed this test. But Libya, which isn’t experiencing mass slaughter or anything close to it, pretty clearly doesn’t count.

Ezra made a very good argument along these lines, and Jonathan Chait offered up a not wholly unconvincing counterargument:

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it’s not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

This is true so far as it goes. Political necessity really does constrain how we think about opportunity costs. It would, of course, be better for the world if the money currently allocated to implementing the Affordable Care Act were reallocated to buying anti-malarial bednets, clean water straws, and so forth for people in the developing world. But all other choices aside, a world with the Affordable Care Act is better than one without it, and so I supported it, fervently.

But the difference between that situation and the one in Libya is instructive. There were 535 Congressmen and Senators whose preferences were determinative of the outcome of the health care reform fight. It is not unduly hubristic on the part of policy writers to think that their writing could help sway at least one of them. Given that possibility, it feels irresponsible to look at the bill and say, “this is great, but more foreign aid would be better,” when saying, “this bill is the biggest expansion of the American safety net since the Great Society” has the potential to affect things.

On foreign policy, however, there’s only one actor whose preferences are determinative of outcomes, and that’s Barack Obama. Blog posts aren’t going to persuade him one way or the other, especially after the bombs are already falling. In this case, it makes less sense to write in order to influence real-time political debates than to write in order to change the way people in and out of government think about policy issues. The fact that people working in public policy don’t think to compare the benefits of the Libya intervention to those of buying bednets for Africans is exactly the sort of thing political writers can help correct, by making that comparison themselves.

This is why Leon Wieseltier’s defense of the intervention is so infuriating. He mocks Ezra’s point on the relative benefits of spending money fighting Libya versus spending money fighting malaria, asking, “Did our inaction in Rwanda reduce the frequency of malaria in Africa?” The point seems to be that malaria eradication may be a better goal, but it’s not politically tenable, and in light of that, intervening in Libya is a good second-best option in humanitarian terms.

But one reason that humanitarian intervention is so much more politically tenable than anti-malaria spending is that Leon Wieseltier, most everyone else at The New Republic, and a whole lot of other liberal hawks in DC have made it their mission for the past 20+ years to make it politically tenable. If he and his comrades thought anti-malaria spending was a better idea, then they should have spent time arguing that instead. But they didn’t. And turning around when called on it and saying, “Well yes, this is a second best option” is really bizarre.