The Flavor of the Day in Libya

| Mon Mar. 14, 2011 1:02 PM EDT

Jonathan Chait thinks that Barack Obama is too attached to defending the status quo in international affairs:

The Obama administration's decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan show that it's obviously not allergic to the use of military force. Rather, it seems to have an extremely strong status quo bias. The policy rationale for aiding Libya's rebels seems clearly stronger than the policy rationale for pressing on in Afghanistan. Yet here we are. You can justify each decision on its own terms, of course. But it appears to me that the level of fear of American intervention in the Middle East displayed by Obama here — a level strong enough to foreclose a no-fly zone in defense of, and aid to, an indigenous uprising — would also be strong enough to push it out of one or both of its current wars. Instead, we simply have status quo across the board.

This is probably true, but I'm not sure how it could really be otherwise. It takes a lot of energy to change the status quo, and it takes a lot of energy regardless of which direction you're trying to move it. There's only just so much energy and just so many resources that a president has at his disposal, and that limits his options considerably.

Besides, if the result of status quo bias right now is a strong tendency not to get involved in military operations that can easily spiral out of control, that's probably a good thing. Establishing a no-fly zone in Libya is suddenly the flavor of the day in amateur war punditry, but it's no silver bullet. Before we go there, I'd like to hear some experienced professionals telling me that a no-fly zone would (a) actually make a significant difference and (b) not be likely to lead to an escalation of forces. If Obama wants to hear the same thing before he commits the United States to yet another war, then good for him.