Theodore Roosevelt was explicit in his assertion of an American right to use military force against other countries for ethical reasons. For Roosevelt, it wasn't necessary that the miscreant country had first slaughtered large numbers of its own people. The Monroe Doctrine had famously proclaimed an American right to use force to prevent (or reverse) European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt went further, enunciating an American right to land soldiers anywhere to avert "chronic wrongdoing." Although this justification might appear a bit expansive, the question remains: Where was Teddy Roosevelt when we so needed him in the past few weeks? Wherever he was, he wasn't in the White House.
For all practical purposes, the United States is the only country on Earth either willing or able to wage war for ethical (or mostly ethical) purposes. Occasionally, it acts (as it did in Serbia in 1999). Often, though, it doesn't (as it didn't in Rwanda in 1994). Bill Clinton made the call in both cases.
In the case of the Libyan people's uprising, alas, the U.S. couldn't make up its mind - the moral equivalent of taking a pass. For three weeks, notwithstanding the appeals of the freedom fighters, President Barack Obama dithered - further empowering Moammar Gadhafi. Inexorably, the U.S. President allowed a small war against a disoriented dictator to turn into a bigger war against a passably menacing Arab warrior.
The global reality is, there are only two ways to punish and stop chronic wrongdoing by rogue states. You delegate the job to the U.S., or you delegate it to the United Nations. Usually, the UN is a waste of time. Usually, China and Russia veto ethical interventions. Last week, much to their credit, they didn't. In the end, though, the Russian and Chinese decisions didn't matter. It was, once again, the American decision that mattered.
In an eloquent paper ( The 'Bush Doctrine': Can Preventive War Be Justified?), U.S. legal scholars Robert Delahunty (University of St. Thomas at Minneapolis) and John Yoo (University of California at Berkeley) note that "hundreds of wars" have been waged, in violation of UN Charter rules on the use of force, during the brief existence of the UN Security Council. It would be "an obvious folly," these scholars say, to rely on the Security Council to prevent genocide.
"When the Great Powers are in agreement, the elaborate charades of the Security Council are unnecessary," Profs. Delahunty and Yoo assert with impeccable logic. "When these powers do not agree, the UN is impotent." By elimination, this left the U.S. last week as the sole alternative to silent surrender. (France and Britain, early champions of intervention, would never have gone it alone.)
Almost every U.S. president has asserted a right to use force for preventive reasons. Mr. Obama aside, modern presidents (Ronald Reagan, Mr. Clinton, George W. Bush) have asserted a corollary right: military intervention for protective reasons. Mr. Reagan memorably recognized the right of freedom fighters "to secure rights that have been ours since birth." Mr. Clinton, for his part, justified his intervention in Serbia on moral grounds alone: to end "ethnic cleansing."
The civilized world needs to recognize the strategic necessity of U.S. superpower intervention in such situations. If preventive war is justified, so is protective war: thus, the doctrine of "responsibility to protect." For democracies, an ethical war is a defensive war. By this standard, Canada should have committed to the Libyan cause earlier, too: Our support now, and our offer of CF-18 fighter jets, came too late to make a difference.
Mr. Obama's refusal to intervene promptly in Libya, however, was utterly tragic. This wasn't Iraq. This wasn't Afghanistan. This was a simple police action, widely endorsed, against an outlaw state. Done expeditiously, the U.S. could probably have ended Col. Gadhafi's macabre reign in a matter of days, if not hours. By the time the Security Council convened, with thousands of Libyans already dead or wounded, Col. Gadhafi's regime was bragging that it would crush the remnants of the rebellion within days.
We obviously don't know what happens next - though we should assume that Col. Gadhafi's ceasefire declaration on Friday was purely strategic. We do know, as Winston Churchill once noted, that nothing whatsoever is gained by putting off a just war.