Since our military intervention in Libya, I've heard a lot of people complaining about American inconsistency. The usual argument goes something like: Why Libya and not Bahrain or Syria? Shouldn't we support democratic protesters everywhere?
I think this argument is misguided. For one, it's not clear why inconsistency is an argument against supporting human rights in a particular case. As Nick Kristof put it, "Isn't it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?"
Moreover, while our actions are certainly inconsistent, it's not so clear that we arbitrarily uphold our principles.
To explain, take my unflagging craving for ice cream. I buy it whenever I can afford it. But what happens if the price of ice cream is too high? I go without. In other words, costs mediate my insatiable hunger for ice cream. When my wallet allows, I buy ice cream. When it doesn't, I don't. If someone only looks at how consistently I eat ice cream without reference to its cost and my bank account, it'll look as if I inconsistently crave ice cream. In fact, I only inconsistently purchase it.
As Joshua Foust tweeted today, there's a difference between consistency of action and consistency of principle. I agree with him that the latter is more important than the former (though he uses this distinction to still argue against the Libya intervention).
Just because we do not always intervene to protect human rights, that does not necessarily mean we do not have a consistent preference for human rights. Just as when I buy ice cream, we have to look at the costs (economic, political and military) of intervention and our ability to afford those costs.
In the case of Libya, given the domestic and international support for intervention and the impotency of Qaddafi's air defenses, military intervention was relatively inexpensive. In comparison, intervention in Syria or Bahrain would be far more expensive. Therefore, even if we consistently prefer to support democracy in both countries, there's no fault in inconsistently acting upon those preferences given the divergent costs.
That's why Denis McDonough recently explained, "We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region." In other words, McDonough has no problem that our consistent pursuit of our interests will result in inconsistent actions. Nor do I.
Of course, this discussion of costs ignores two other important questions. One, even if we can afford intervention, will it be effective? And two, do we currently conceive our interests to include the democratization of the Middle East?
I would answer intervention can sometimes be effective and we should conceive democratization as our national interest. But that's clearly up to debate.