The Ethic of Responsibility

Anne Applebaum gets this right on Libya:

It’s nice to be on the right side of history, and I’m not surprised that George W. Bush’s remaining supporters now feel good about the “freedom agenda” that he sometimes advocated and sometimes forgot while in office. But being right, even morally right, isn’t everything. It is also important to be competent, to be consistent, and to be knowledgeable. It’s important for your soldiers and diplomats to speak the language of the people you want to influence. It’s important to understand the ethnic and tribal divisions of the place you hope to assist. Let’s not repeat past mistakes: Before sending in the 101st Airborne, we should find out what people on the ground want and need. Because right now, I don’t hear them clamoring for us to come. They are afraid of what American “assistance” might do to their country.

This is the “ethic of responsibility” approach. What’s wanted on Libya aren’t bold ideas to fix things that are as likely as not to end up creating some new horrible problems, it’s modest ideas that we can be reasonably certain will actually help. Of course it sounds good to write articles decrying someone else’s fecklessness, but we should be very reluctant to initiate military actions just because nobody can think up a better lead for a column.