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With the military intervention in Libya, has America entered its third concurrent war in a Muslim nation?

Depends on how you define “war.” The Marine Corps manual on Warfighting states that the essence of war is “a violent struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, each trying to impose itself on the other.” By this standard, I would say that we are indeed in a limited interventionist war in Northern Africa.

Of course, some folks may legitimately disagree. While the standard of “they are shooting at us, we’re shooting at them” may be enough for soldiers, others—especially pundits and politicians—may prefer to use a less bellicose term. For this reason I’ll refrain from pointing out what (as a former Marine) I believe to be the correct designation and concede that we can use other terminology. Let’s simply call it a “military intervention.”

Since the set of criteria that Christians generally use to determine whether entering into war is justifiable is called jus ad bellum , let’s call the criteria of just cause needed to judge the Libyan action jus ad interventionem .

How does this conception of just cause impact on the issue of armed humanitarian intervention? The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy explains:

This is when a state does not commit cross-border aggression but, for whatever reason, turns savagely against its own people, deploying armed force in a series of massacres against large numbers of its own citizens. Such events happened in Cambodia and Uganda in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994, Serbia/Kosovo in 1998-9 and in Sudan/Darfur from 2004 to the present. Our definitions allow us to say it’s permissible to intervene on behalf of the victims, and to attack with defensive force the rogue regime meting out such death and destruction. Why? There’s no logical requirement that aggression can only be committed across borders. Aggression is the use of armed force in violation of someone else’s basic rights. That “someone else” might be: a) another person (violent crime); b) another state (international or “external” aggression); or c) many other people within one’s own community (domestic or “internal” aggression). The commission of aggression, in any of these forms, causes the aggressor to forfeit its rights. The aggressor has no right not to be resisted with defensive force; indeed, the aggressor has the duty to stop and submit itself to punishment. If the aggressor doesn’t stop, it is entirely permissible for its victims to resort to force to protect themselves—and for anyone else to do likewise in aid of the victims. Usually, in humanitarian intervention, armed aid from the international community is essential for an effective resistance against the aggression, since domestic populations are at a huge disadvantage, and are massively vulnerable, to the violence of their own state.

While most students of just war theory would agree that this standard can be used to justify armed humanitarian intervention, there is often heated disagreement about how it is to be applied in geopolitical situations. Additionally, the determination about when jus ad interventionem is legitimate and when it is immoral can appear to observers to be rather arbitrary.

For example, in 1994 the Bosnian civil war had been underway for two years when Pope John Paul II endorsed military action to disarm the aggressors. Yet a decade later, the Pope opposed efforts to use similar force to stop Saddam Hussein from slaughtering citizens in Iraq. (I’m sure there are some non-hairsplitting distinctions that were used by the Vatican to determine why using force to save Bosnians was good while using force to save Kurd’s was immoral. But I’ve never been able to find them.)

We are seeing a similarly capricious standard being applied by the Obama administration in determining which Muslim citizens should be defended against their autocratic regimes. For instance, the government of Bahrain—aided by troops from Saudi Arabia—is using violence against pro-democracy protestors. Instead of establishing a no-fly zone and protecting them by force, though, our secretary of state is warning Iran not to intervene on the side of the dissenters. While this may be a justifiable action from the context of national security, from the perspective of moral consistency it appears arbitrary and cynical.

However, our government’s inconsistent standard of jus ad interventionem is not my only concern. As a general rule, I am moderately in favor of limited armed intervention by outside nation-states if it can prevent outrages against humanity. I am also, as a general rule, in favor of the intervening nation-state being some country other than the United States.

My preference would be for the responsibility to fall on the geographically closest legitimate nation-state that is powerful enough to intervene effectively. We could call this the “Neighbor Rule” and promise that the U.S. would abide by it ourselves (i.e., if Canada or Mexico engages in intrastate genocide, we’ll send the Marines to straighten them out).

The fact that European and Arabic states can sufficiently could handle this situation is one of the many reasons I’d prefer that we not get involved in a Libya’s civil war. While it may pass the criteria for jus ad interventionem , there are sufficient practical reasons for letting other countries take the lead while we sit this one out. If the U.N. asks, we can says we have a two-war maximum, and that since we are currently meeting our warfighting quota, we’ll have to wrap one of those up before we can start another.

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