In Defense of Consequentialism: A Response to Shadi Hamid

19 Apr

Two weeks ago, Shadi Hamid made the case in Vox that the US’ intervention in Libya was in fact a success (it’s worth a read in full). The blame for the current crisis lies largely, in Hamid’s eyes, on post-intervention decisions made by the US. My intention here is not to challenge Hamid’s Libya-specific arguments, as I do not claim myself to be an expert on Libya and I’m more interested in his broader claims about US foreign policy. Those claims specifically are mostly tied to his criticism of what he calls “consequentialism”, or the tracing back of all subsequent events to an initial intervention by an outside actor.

My difference of opinion is fundamental: I believe most US foreign policy to be short-sighted, and consequentialism, or the weighing of long-term ramifications against the initial intended effect of a particularly intervention to represent the ideal method of policymaking. Policies cannot solely be judged on intention, due to the frequency with which good intentions produce negative outcomes, nor can they be judged solely on initial effects due to the long-running causal chains produced by order-altering things like military interventions. However, Hamid is right that it is impossible to foresee some ramifications (even if we can see general correlations) of foreign policy, but he doesn’t apply that standard of doubt consistently across his analysis.

Early in the essay, Hamid makes the point that to evaluate the Libyan intervention, it is necessary to compare the current situation with the counterfactual: what would Libya look like if the US hadn’t intervened. In general, the assertion is correct, but the practice of counterfactuals is tricky. Hamid’s analysis of where the Libyan conflict was at when the US intervened is enlightening, but his conclusion that Libya would likely look like Syria today had the US not intervened is highly questionable. Political prediction, especially on rare events like mass atrocities or civil wars, is really, really hard. And when you consider all the differences between Libya and Syria (total population, population density, salience of sectarian divides, regime configuration, military capability of opposition, etc.) along with all contingencies that could have occurred in the past four years, it is impossible to say with any certainty that Libya would bear a resemblance to Syria. Syria is merely a convenient standard of comparison because it’s an ongoing civil war in the Middle East, but saying Libya would be Syria doesn’t actually tell us that much about Libya or the effects of intervention. It’s not that the intervention can’t be justified with counterfactuals, but they need to be more carefully constructed.

The central thrust of Hamid’s essay is to deride what he calls consequentialism, or evaluating the efficacy of foreign policy based on events years after the initial intervention in the target location. For Hamid, such an approach is particularly problematic because it a policy cannot be retroactively deemed a mistake if the limited goal of the intervention is achieved initially. Therefore consequentialism creates an impossibly high bar for foreign policy decisions: unless a foreign policy results in a peaceful, liberal democracy, than it’s a failure. This is, however, a major straw man. Certainly there are some critics that would deem the Libyan intervention a failure based on this standard, but Hamid lumps in those with reasonable concerns that a civil war (likely to continue for many years based on what we know about civil wars and foreign intervention) at least partially produced by the NATO intervention will have more negative long-term effects on Libyans than Gaddafi’s intended repression. Worrying about consequences does not preclude making foreign policy decisions. Recognizing that every decision has potential positive and negative effects is no more than an accurate framework for analyzing policy.

There are an additional two problems with Hamid’s argument here. First, the dismissal of consequentialism is one of the central dynamics that leads Western policymakers to struggle with conflict prevention. Short-term thinking produces short-term solutions. Policymakers become trapped in a vicious circle of continual crises that overwhelm them and prevent longer-term thinking that could go a long way in preventing violence. Second, Hamid’s insistence that the initial moral righteousness of an intervention negates any negative effects, is deeply problematic. As many before me have argued, focusing only on moral imperatives disincentives careful planning and allows policymakers to wash their hands of responsibility if the situation starts to go south. Evaluating military interventions isn’t personal morality, because very rarely can doing the right thing in your personal life lead to deaths of thousands of people. Afghanistan is a valid example. The United States was going after the Taliban in response to 9/11 initially, but the war has had disastrous long-term effects for the country. It would take quite a bit of chutzpah to declare it a success.

Moral arguments without strategic and humanitarian (writ large) considerations are also prone to abuse, because liberal interventionists and neoconservatives aren’t actually that far apart: both believe in the wisdom of Western democracies to improve the world through military force. Without more consequentialist standards, there’s not a clear line the prevents Iraq-like decisions. So Hamid’s own argument that Obama being right about Iraq decreases his likelihood he’ll be right about other situations is undermined by a lack of a standard that allows leaders to tell the difference between the two.

Going back to Libya, Hamid also argues that whatever you think of the initial decision to intervene, any blame attached to the US should be assigned only for a lack of follow-through post-intervention. This focus on a lack of bureaucratic focus and political will is a frequently-repeated argument wielded by liberal interventionists like Samantha Power. The problem, though, is that political will cannot simply be summoned; the extent to which it exists is the product of pre-existing ideological and bureaucratic structures. And when American interventions frequently fail due to the lack of follow-through, the conclusion that most logically follows, contra Hamid, is that the American government lacks the ability to follow-through effectively. The problem is not specific to particular leaders or administrations, but instead an endemic and systematic one. Improvements can certainly be made, but considering the cost and scale and foreign military interventions, it is far from obvious that a different president would’ve achieved a different result in Libya.


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