Two great western democracies, France and the United States, went to war yesterday without the slightest democratic debate. The fateful decision was taken by the executive acting alone. In a third democracy, the UK, David Cameron at least took the precaution of seeking a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Forms were respected. Perhaps the executives in France and the US felt that there was no need to respect the forms because a favorable vote was certain. Perhaps, but a terrible precedent has been set. In this case, unlike in Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan in 2001, and the Gulf in 1991, there was not even a pretext--however flimsy--of imminent danger to the homeland. The immediate justification was "humanitarian intervention," as in Bosnia and Kosovo. I share the emotional response to the threat of civilian slaughter in Benghazi, but I note that there are also threats, already realized, to civilian lives in Yemen and Bahrain, yet there is no talk of intervention in these places. The difference is easily explained in terms of Realpolitik, and Piero Garau does an admirable job here. I also share James Fallows' misgivings about the circumvention of Congress, as well as the failure to think through the question of what happens next.
This is a difficult issue, a very hard case to decide. I do not want to say that humanitarian intervention should never be a reason to go to war, but I think that we--France and the US for starters--need to develop a more reasoned doctrine, a set of criteria to decide when the risks of non-action outweigh the risks of action. And that decision should not be left to heads of state alone. It is ironic that democratic procedures should be most consistently flouted when the objective is ostensibly to establish democracy in places where the likelihood of success in such a mission seems open to question.