It is reasonable to conclude that if John McCain had won the presidency, the United States military would be at this moment engaging in war with Libya, by enforcing a no-fly zone over the embattled country and probably arming the anti-Qadaffi rebels. After all, that's what the Arizona Senator has been advocating for the past two weeks.
But in fact an alternative-universe McCain presidency could have put us on war footing with Libya as early as January 2001, had he beaten George W. Bush in the Republican primaries back in the days of federal budget surpluses. After all, it was McCain during the 2000 campaign who was advocating pro-active regime change in Tripoli, asserting during one presidential debate that he would "revise our policies concerning these rogue states—Iraq, Libya, North Korea—those countries that continue to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them," and then "institute a policy that I call 'rogue state rollback.' I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically-elected governments."
And as he made clear in his original speech unveiling this radical doctrine of pre-emptive pro-democracy war, President McCain would have backed these revolutionary operations with the full power of the U.S. military. "If you commit to supporting these forces, accept the seriousness of the obligation," he cautioned. "Don't abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals as the administration did in the north of Iraq....The world's only superpower should never give its word insincerely. We should never make idle threats."
John McCain will never be president. But his aggressive strain of anti-dictator military interventionism is alive and kicking against President Barack Obama's Middle East reticence, with frustrated bombardiers from both major political parties agitating for action.
"Ronald Reagan bombed Libya," former Pennsylvania senator and current presidential aspirant (no really) Rick Santorum said in Iowa this week. "If you want to be Reaganesque, it seems the path is pretty clear here....We should be able to do whatever we want." Santorum competitor and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty concurred: "We've got a situation where we have a confirmed terrorist, sociopath and killer, Moammar [Qadaffi], mowing down his own people who are trying to bring forward their view of liberty and freedom." The undead Newt Gingrich called for a no-fly zone "this evening," adding: "The United States doesn't need anybody's permission. We don't need to have NATO, who frankly, won't bring much to the fight. We don't need to have the United Nations....This is a moment to get rid of [Qaddafi]. Do it. Get it over with."
Democrats, per usual, favor a more multilateral flavor of the same stiff drink. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) advocated a no-fly zone with the wishy-washy "hope" that it would be part of an international effort, then uncorked this beaut of a non-sequitur: "The last thing we want to think about is any kind of military intervention....And I don't consider the fly zone stepping over that line." Socks-wearing tuff guy Eliot Spitzer demanded that "The U.S. must recognize the provisional government, enforce a no-fly zone, and arm the rebels," arguing that "Qaddafi's actions have been so inhumane and ruthless that he can be viewed an international criminal, and his crimes so great that we could justly intervene on humanitarian grounds," and then concluding "Now all we have to do is help them win." So simple!
It's not hard to understand the impulse here. Qadaffi is an evil sonofabitch mowing down his own people, and we have the most powerful military in the history of the world. There's a particularly rusty and nasty-looking nail sticking up right in the middle of the footpath, and we happen to have this marvelous hammer nearby. What kind of heartless and/or gutless bastard can stand idly by as the bodies pile up?
This kind: The one who worries about the myriad unintended consequences of war.
Look around the historic North African and Middle East uprisings of 2011, and what's missing? The Great Satan, that's who. The United States has such an outsized role in the world's affairs, and such an overwhelming military advantage, that it cannot help but massively distort any internal situation it gets involved in, and sponge up responsibility for the affairs of people who for too long have been spectators in their own lives. By mostly removing itself as the central protagonist of the Arab Spring, Washington is devolving that responsibility to the people who deserve it, and letting the focus remain instead on the brutal misgovernance of the region's dictators.
If the indigineous people-power movements in the Muslim world succeed in removing most of their regimes and replacing them with governments even incrementally better, all without a superpower tilting the scales, imagine how much more potent that would be than a series of externally manipulated insurgencies backed by the U.S. Navy. Locally owned revolutions always have more sticking power; imperially fomented regime changes are always more fragile and costly (to the outside power) in the long term. It is an irony that humanitarian interventionists rarely grapple with: Helping out the "good guys" can in some cases prolong bad situations, all while lowering the bar for tomorrow's war, and creating incentives for America-fearing authoritarians to pursue nuclear weapons and clamp down still further on their populations.
Imagine for a second if rogue-state rollback had become the doctrine of the land. Not only would we have already had our wars with Iraq, Libya, and North Korea (producing Lord knows how many occupation problems), but almost certainly Iran, and maybe even Russia. All that before the Arab Spring, with its multilateral breakout of democracy-espousing citizen groups taking on rogue dictators. Each of these military interventions, as all wars inevitably do, would have required pragmatic deals with unsavory neighboring regimes, including those who in some cases might be more objectively oppressive than the target of our firepower. Would the world really be a safer place if all this had happened? With better prospects for future liberalization?
Perhaps that is unknowable. But what we know for sure in 2011 America is that We Are Out of Money. A broke country is not a country that can long maintain its leading role in the affairs of everybody else. As the historian Niall Ferguson wrote in a Foreign Policy essay last year,
[M]ost imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises....Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly, indeed, as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2009 of more than $1.4 trillion—about 11.2 percent of GDP, the biggest deficit in 60 years—and another for 2010 that will not be much smaller. Public debt, meanwhile, is set to more than double in the coming decade, from $5.8 trillion in 2008 to $14.3 trillion in 2019. Within the same timeframe, interest payments on that debt are forecast to leap from eight percent of federal revenues to 17 percent. [...]
There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary. [...] U.S. fiscal policy today is preprogrammed to reduce the resources available for all overseas military operations in the years ahead.
The world, in other words, is slipping through America's grasp. There will be appalling, murderous moments in this process; there's no reason to sugarcoat that. But it might just be that the necessity of unipower rollback will reveal the virtues of devolving responsibility to the people who yearn most to be free.
Matt Welch (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor in Chief of Reason, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick; and co-author with Nick Gillespie of the forthcoming The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America. This column first appeared at Reason.com.