We Used to Fight “Wars of Whim” All the Time

Libya is not the exception. Carefully prepared interventions and conflicts are.

Turkish cavalry south of Jerusalem, April 1917
Turkish cavalry south of Jerusalem, April 1917 (Bundesarchiv)

Pondering the purpose of the military intervention in Libya, Foreign Policy‘s Stephen M. Walt suggests a new category of conflict besides “wars of necessity,” which are waged for clear national interests, and “wars of choice,” which clearly aren’t — “wars of whim,” fought by powerful countries for the same reason politicians cheat — “because they can.”

It’s not as though this is some novel invention though. We used to fight wars of whim all the time. Walt should have known this when he penned the following description:

A war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification and without thinking through the consequences if one’s initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out.

This applies to probably at least half of the wars waged by European powers before the twentieth century — and certainly a few noble interventions during the last century as well.

Britain didn’t decide to bombard Alexandria in 1882 with particular forethought and ended up running the country for half a century. There wasn’t a lot of public debate on the merits or justification of conquering Indochina in France the next decade. And no one really had a backup plan in case their assumptions and hopes about the First World War did not bear out — as they so disastrously didn’t.

Indeed, the history of European warfare is littered with wars of whim. Before the Concert of Europe, the continent was almost constantly fighting for what it couldn’t accomplish with diplomacy. European countries acquired entire empires in extended fits of absentmindedness and routinely waged wars there for little other reason than to keep themselves occupied.

Libya is not the exception. Carefully prepared wars that are waged for specific reasons and after ample public debate are.