Stick to What You Know, Libya Edition

I signed on to Twitter early this year. In March, just a couple of months into my Twitter experience, I used the forum to wade into the debate over whether or not the United States and NATO should intervene militarily in Libya. I was initially skeptical of the idea. To me, Libya seemed like a small (if likely tragic) story in the much larger drama unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, and I worried that “Western” governments were rushing toward intervention on the basis of emotion instead of strategy.

My mind was changed in late March by Anne Marie Slaughter, former director of Policy Planning at the State Department, and Yale economist Chris Blattman. Ms. Slaughter made a compelling (to me, anyway) case that limited military intervention in Libya was not just consistent with American values; it was also in the United States’ national interest. Libya might not be strategically important on its own, but intervention there would help shift Arab perceptions of the United States and reaffirm a positive form of American leadership at a crucial moment in world history. (See this blog post at the New York Review of Books for her own words on the subject.) Around the same time, Mr. Blattman blogged (link) that military intervention in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire could play a small but useful role in advancing the development of nascent institutions of global governance. “However they turn out,” he wrote, “we’ll learn very little from the cases of Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. The effects and institutions will emerge over decades rather than years. So not only do we have low accountability, we have bad feedback. Even so, I would rather see the world try.” I concurred, and I started tweeting accordingly.

Now, a few months later, I’m not so sure. It’s not the fact that Ghaddafi is still there; actually, I’m optimistic that his regime won’t survive the year, in no small part because of the increasingly sharp attacks it’s suffering at the hands of NATO forces and the Libyan rebels they effectively support. Instead, my doubts have more to do with the way the Libyan intervention fits (or doesn’t fit) into the larger picture. While we bomb targets to protect civilians from the Ghaddafi regime in Libya, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed by the Assad regime in Syria, a new wave of mass killings is apparently underway in Sudan, and Mexico’s war with drug traffickers has killed an astonishing and still-growing number of bystanders. It’s hard to see how our governments are strengthening global governance and building norms of civilian protection when they only take action against the weakest and most isolated violators. Meanwhile, I get the feeling that the U.S.’s position as global leader is eroding for larger structural reasons that are untouched by comparatively small choices like the decision to intervene in Libya.

All of that said, I think the biggest lesson I learned from my foray into the Libya policy debate is to stick to what you know–in your professional incarnation, anyway. I have a Ph.D. in political science from a reputable department, and I’ve spent most of the 15 years of my career since graduate school working in the Washington area on research projects related to international affairs and national security. Virtually none of that education and work experience, however, has dealt directly with foreign policy. It’s remarkable how little most political scientists know about how policies get made and what effects they have, and I’m no exception to that pattern. When it comes to most areas of foreign policy, I’m basically a well-informed hack.

Hacks are entitled to hold and express our opinions like anyone else, and Twitter is a great place to advocate for causes you believe in. I don’t regret wading into that debate because it was inherently the wrong thing to do. I regret it because I’m trying to use Twitter for a couple of narrow purposes, and advocacy is not one of them. I’m unemployed and I’m intellectually curious, so I’m using that forum to develop my professional reputation and learn from a wider set of peers. The way I’m trying to use it, Twitter is like a professional conference that never ends. I wouldn’t think of shouting about political causes of personal interest in the middle of a conference session, and I’m now realizing I ought to apply the same standards to a digital forum I’m trying to use in a similar fashion. A lot of people I interact with through Twitter and Facebook seem comfortable blending the personal, professional, and political in social media. I’m not one of them, and I’ll try harder to keep those (admittedly fuzzy) lines in mind in the future.

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