More War: The Intervention in Libya

The war in Libya happened so fast that most of the commentariat seemed to be caught flat-footed. The international community had apparently decided to go to war without properly vetting their decisions with bloggers! As a result, we got more than our fair share of bad arguments. I’ve been trying to formulate a position of my own, and I’m struck by a strong ambivalence. I don’t like war, and I don’t like three wars at once, but I’m glad my feelings weren’t consulted. It’s David Rieff versus Samantha Power all over again, and I don’t know who is right this time, either. It’s a lot easier to figure out who is wrong.

Here are some reasons that anti-interventionists have been giving that aren’t very good:

  1. This is US imperialism: News flash. We’re not in it for the money anymore. By definition, an empire is a mercantilist dream, not a money-pit. We’ve proven that we do care about minority rights and the wellbeing of civilians. We just haven’t proven that we’re smart enough to actually protect those rights and interests when we set out to do so. Bad implementation is not evidence of bad motivations, and hypocrisy is a pretty weak charge compared to all the dead people.
  2. The rebels could be worse than Gaddafi: Elites are elites. I’m all for getting rid of elites, but there’s been no sign that the human race is capable of eliminating hierarchy. If they win, at least they’ll share an ethnic identity with the people they govern. Apparently people like that.
  3. Anything to do with Libya’s national sovereignty: Who cares? This kind of principled objection assumes that Libya is a nation-state, which begs the question that the rebels are asking, “Should we be a nation-state if it means that guy is in charge?”
  4. We should have invaded Bahrain, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia instead: Frankly, if there’s a case for military intervention in those countries, it should pass the same test that Libya is failing now. But those protesters don’t have guns, so an intervention would require a full-scale boots-on-the-ground invasion and occupation. Neither the US nor the international community can afford to do that a third, fourth, and fifth time in a decade.
  5. It’s unconstitutional: While it’s true that Senator Obama said that we would not go to war without congressional approval, hypocrisy is not the end of the constitutional conversation. Let me remind all the new constitutional scholars that we haven’t declared war in the manner mandated by the Constitution since 1941.

Here are some reasons that the pro-interventionists have been giving that aren’t very good:

  1. Gaddafi is a dictator and we have to help those who struggle for freedom: Tyranny, though horrible, is quite palatable when compared to war, especially when we remember that war has more often resulted in tyranny than democracy. There’s a reason we use the term “revolution”: for most people, such events involve a tremendous jostling as the top becomes the bottom and the bottom becomes the top. The faces change, but usually the system of laws and the patterns of domination remain the same.
  2. We have to signal our support for other uprisings: How does intervening elsewhere show the Iranians or Bahrainese we care about them? Doesn’t it mostly say, “We noticed you were having a revolution, but we decided not to help”? This feels a little like going to the hospital where your grandmother is having surgery to check in on an old drinking buddy: our aircraft carriers were in the neighborhood, but we didn’t even drop in for a quick chat or punitive bombing campaign.
  3. Anything that compares this intervention to the interventions we failed to make in Rwanda or Bosnia: This is not that. You can’t get the golden years back with your children, and you can’t fight the just wars that you missed because you were busy dismantling your welfare state. On the other hand, this could turn out a lot like Kosovo, where air war extended the conflict and led to more civilian deaths.
  4. Yeah, but if a quick intervention in Libya can prevent a genocide, then it will have been worth it: A civil war is not genocide, even if the side you’re rooting for is losing. And conflicts aren’t often quick, especially when one side holds itself to air strikes and a defensive posture. The most likely outcome seems to be partition, with the west remaining in Gaddafi’s hands and the east in the hands of the rebels. Back when I advocated partition in Iraq, people accused me of championing ethnic cleansing. If there is a partition, we should remember how that went for India and Pakistan and Bengal: partition means there will plenty of time for this conflict to go dormant and then re-emerge. More war.

Ultimately, when it comes to the use of military force in the modern age, everyone ought to be a consequentialist, in the sense of asking about the likely outcomes. Just war theory is an absurd fig leaf when we’re talking about aerial bombardment. Unsurprisingly it does more to justify wars than to limit them.

The reason we ought to be consequentialists is because wars do more harm to civilian populations than we care to admit. Always. Armies suffer fewer casualties than the civilian populations that support them, and fewer still than the civilian populations of contested territories. You might think soldiers, engaged in active hostilities, would face the brunt of the suffering, but nations at war (other than the US) devote their foodstuffs and medical resources to the military. However, the disruption of a drawn-ought conflict is harder on women and children than it is on the men doing the fighting. Women always sufffer the most in such upheavals, because they are ill-equipped to defend themselves in lawless zones and tend to keep their families together rather than ditching their children (as men do) to fend for themselves. Injured soldiers are returned to their homes and women are expected to care for them while also providing for the family. Often the pressure to enter the labor market finds women badly paid and underemployed. Educational opportunities are cut short, again for the good of the men. Then, too, the longterm psychological on survivors and their families are abominable, not to mention the social effects: when the war is over, you’ve got a bunch of shell-shocked young killers wandering around, often still armed and wondering what to do with themselves.

I am not a military expert. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea. We should judge the consequences, which are always receding into the future. Probably that means that commentators should stick with Mao’s opinion on the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.”





7 responses to “More War: The Intervention in Libya”

  1. Ted Kinnaman Avatar

    "[W]ars do more harm to civilian populations than we care to admit. Always. " Excellent point, though I'm not sure why it weighs particularly in favor of consequentialism. I would add that this statement is particularly true when the 'we' is the United States. Our press is much less likely than the press in, say, Europe, to avoid showing dead civilians. (I was in Europe during the first Gulf War and saw horrible things in the newspaper.)

    I mostly agree with you on the good and the bad reasons being given for various positions here, with two small exceptions. First, a skeptic could surely dispute your confident assertion that "We’ve proven that we do care about minority rights and the wellbeing of civilians." Second, you are far too dismissive of considerations of national sovereignty. Surely this consideration has to have *some* weight, and thus it requires some argument to override it.

    Otherwise, very nicely done!

  2. anotherpanacea Avatar

    Thanks Ted!

    I'm mostly concerned to dispel claims that our intervention in Libya constitutes a "just war" in the sense of the UN's standards or the traditional account of just war theory, so when I advocate consequentialism here I don't mean to deny ethical deontology, only the political nation-state version of it. I'm generally persuaded of a large overlapping consensus in the meta-ethical debates.

    It'd take some unpacking, but this is largely why I'd claim that there's no interesting national sovereignty issues once a civil war breaks out: even if we generally recognize obligations and duties to nation-states, these dissipate into duties to individuals whenever there is any uncertainty about the unity of that nation-state. (Think of our relationship to Taiwan, for instance. Or the role of foreigners in the US Civil War.)

    My arguments for "caring" would mostly be a long detailed list of all the expensive, strategically-inconvenient things we've done in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A true skeptic can find a way to discount all of that as merely ideological, but once it's alleged that I'm speaking in bad faith or willful blindness, I don't really know how to respond.

  3. Daniel Levine Avatar
    Daniel Levine

    I do think you dismiss the "empire" argument too quickly. I don't think there's a shadowy cabal of people planning world domination (at least, not since PNAC closed its doors) and you're right that people who think we're in it for the money in any straightforward sense aren't paying attention. And, realistically, having met some of the lesser luminaries in the R2P firmament, I have no reason to believe that they're not *sincere* in their concern for human rights.

    But a couple/few buts.

    I don't think "imperialism" in the current mode is all about money, least of all money for the nations involved. We're bankrupting the US but funding many war industries. So, if you want the money trail, look at Halliburton's bottom line, not the US.' Turns out Halliburton's is only moderately OK, too…

    The ideology of the elites driving this is less, I think, a matter of "let us extend our empire" and more a matter of faith in the rightness and effectiveness of force. Look, e.g., at coverage of the AU's efforts to mediate a solution in Libya (or Zimbabwe, or Sudan, or Liberia, or Cote d'Ivoire, etc.) – the assumption is that such an approach must be: 1. Naive, 2. A sign of weakness, or 3. A sign of an evil hidden agenda. My sense is that this reflects the (sincere) views of many movers and shakers. This leads to a sidelining of organizations (like the AU) that are not powerful wielders of force and towards those that are (like the UNSC and NATO). You don't need malice to have quasi-imperial power projection; you just need to understand that the way the world needs to get run is the way you're good at doing things and others should get out of the way.

    So, it may be less a conspiracy and more a Foucauldian centerless exercise of power via deep assumptions crossed with a bit of Dr. Horrible's "the world is so broken and just needs someone to… rule it!"

    Finally, though I don't have the fully worked-out answer, it's problematic to ask "is Libya a good idea?" outside the context of "Why bombs for Libya, censure for Egypt, peacekeepers for Sudan, nothing for Cote d'Ivoire, and support for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?" The pattern is unlikely to be pure chance or CNN effect, nor is it just a matter of how objectively clear the atrocities are (in fact, I'd argue that the militarization of the "protests" in Libya makes it less clear we should be supporting them – as well as misleading for my favorite news sources to keep referring to them as "protesters"). It's probably not "muhahaha Empire." But I wouldn't rule out the kernel of truth in that hypothesis that it's about a concern with stability especially in places where we have critical interests. Mubarak was clearly losing control – I'd put my money on the army defections being more important in the calculus than the breadth of opposition. Bahrain and SA aren't, and we don't want them to. Ghaddafi was always a bit unstable and he's clearly only able to keep control, if at all, at serious cost. CDI? What? We care that much about chocolate?

    Not to slide in the conspirators' direction, but I'd also look at who we're backing in a lot of these fights. I certainly don't know who's in charge of the Libyan military council, and I'm not sure anyone does yet. But the Egyptian military? Major economic actors (check out Planet Money's excellent podcast on this). Allasane Outtara and Morgan Tvangirai? People who were not members of the anticolonial movements but who have connections with international financial institutions and Western links. I don't think this is "let us put our evil capitalist friends in power." I think it's "these guys make sense to us and the kinds of bad things they are likely to do are the kinds of bad things were're more comfortable with." But in terms of extending a quasi-imperial administrative and economic structure in which we are empowered by being big players with the right kinds of resources and knowledge, it may be similar in effect.

    But take anything I say here with a grain of salt; I don't know shit about internal Libyan politics.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      I have a great deal of respect for your views on this, despite your closing caveat.

      I take the charge of "ideology" to be closely aligned with either the Marxist view (i.e. The German Ideology via Lukacs or Althusser) or the Arendtian view (i.e. The Origins of Totalitarianism et al.) But I don't think that's what you're describing, even though you use in the context of empire and the charge of imperial hypocrisy that suggests a strongly Arendtian view of beliefs that resist correction in the face of new evidence because they provide a totalizing understanding of the world that includes an error theory for all opponents. (The Foucault reference strike me as a misplaced cite to those the horribly mistaken pseudo-philosophers, Hardt and Negri. Right after _Empire_ was published, their views were discredited by 9/11, two major wars, the massive expansion of the national security state, and the development of a new hegemon in China. But like the no-nothing pundits they are, they just doubled down on their mistakes. "These last gasps of Empire prove our point!")

      "The ideology of the elites driving this is less, I think, a matter of "let us extend our empire" and more a matter of faith in the rightness and effectiveness of force."

      I don't understand how this is an ideology. It's a set of beliefs, one that members of the US government and the international community are constantly debating. Power, Clinton, and Obama aren't ideologues. For instance, Power is a person with a set of strongly-held beliefs developed over a career of writing and thinking about these issues. Those beliefs are certainly truth-sensitive, in the sense that she revises her beliefs on the basis of new evidence. Perhaps she is wrong! But there's no reason to call this an ideological mistake: it's just an error. If David Rieff had her job, he'd advocate different courses of action, right?

      I think when leftist talk about ideology, they generally mean the pattern of outcomes to which a particular set of beliefs tends to lead. So, for instance, if we're absolutely convinced that we're doing this for civilians, but the outcome is that we regain control of a set of oil fields previously enriching an unfriendly state and accidentally kill a lot of civilians in the process, we should say that was just an unintended consequence. When it happen quite often that our interventions work out in our favor, we should say that this unintended consequences seems to be a habitual occurrence and perhaps we ought to add it into our planning and considerations. In contrast, the charge of ideology says, "You're actually intending the unintended consequence; no one could be stupid enough to constantly advocate humanitarian intervention but only to have that advocacy succeed when it helps your country's strategic goals and fails to achieve the stated objectives!" And yet I believe that equally intelligent and passionate advocacy will sometimes find a receptive audience and sometimes not, and that it can be purely systematic and unintentional effects that dictate which outcome occurs.

      I think we should reserve ideology for either the Arendt case (bloggers call this "epistemic closure" though it's not the same kind of EC that you and I are familiar with) or the narrow version of the Marx case (where someone's beliefs conveniently bolster their lifestyle.) The rest of the time, I think it's best to leave out intentions, and especially the allegations of secret intentions counter-to-stated-reasons. That way, when we show people that their best laid plans are leading to unintended results, we can have some hope that they'll amend their beliefs and act differently next time! I think the evidence suggests that our government is capable of this kind of learning.

      1. Daniel Levine Avatar
        Daniel Levine

        I've never read Hardt and Negri, so I can't comment on them. I own Empire, having been intrigued by the hype, but never got around to it.

        The reference to Foucault was more intended to grab at… well, the cite that's coming to mind is the discussion of the confessional system in _History of Sexuality_ or schooling systems in _Discipline and Punish_. Your practices might have one ostensible purpose (purification of the soul, education) but structurally not just *tend* to lead to something else, but be (nearly) inevitably aimed at something else (social control through shaming, construction of an efficient industrial workforce). The point was that this effect can even survive the players involved sincerely believing in the "surface" purpose. No secret intentions required. I'm a nice guy with no ulterior motives. But fifteen times a day I ensure global poverty is maintained through my actions and inactions.

        That's why I'm less optimistic than you are about how "fixable" the system is by way of pointing out bad effects. Say, "why not Bahrain?" and Power will sympathize and say, "at least Libya." Say, "yeah, but you killed a lot of people," and she'll say, "yeah, but we didn't *intend* to, so it's not the same deal." Structurally, she's working within a system of thinking that has a few really problematic aspects:

        1. Sovereignty is really important until mass atrocities occur.
        2. "Doing something" about the use of force for atrocities involves the use of force in return.
        3. Mass atrocities can be addressed (by force) without needing to care very much about the underlying social dynamics that gave rise to them – intervention is, can be, and should be apolitical.
        4. Priority one is crisis response.
        5. Crisis response is what we're bad at, and so what needs the most attention from analysts.

        Unsurprisingly (to you) I think all of these beliefs are false. But they are the baseline of the mainstream "responsibility to protect" discussion (I will buy you a beer if you walk into an average meeting in DC of folks who work on this stuff and hear anyone besides me, a member of the Instittue for Inclusive Security, or a member of USIP's Conflict Analysis and Prevention team talking seriously about the "responsibility to prevent" chapter in the ICISS report. Vague generalizations about the need for early warning don't count.). And, furthermore, I'd argue that if you hold this set of assumptions you are inevitably going to end up grumbliing slightly when the US arms Bahrain but dropping bombs on Miloscevic or Khaddafi – bad guys, mind you, but not clearly the best response to their badness.

        So, that's the sense of "ideology" I'm using, which I take to be basically Marxist in spirit (ideology isn't just for other people): it's a set of assumptions and patterns of thought that structurally close off certain courses of action and open up others, regardless of the sincere intentions of their adherents. And it's "ideological" in the Marxist sense that it's also hegemonic – the bourgeois really believe that bourgeois ideology is good for everyone, and so export it to other classes, etc. Try to find a discussion of Chinese insistence on sovereignty at the UNSC that even takes their arguments seriously (OK, you'll find a couple, but usually outside the mainstream – ask ICG and it's all about oil).

        To bring this all down from the heights – there's a whole group of folks who took the same lesson from Rwanda: if we'd been willing to shoot, we could have stopped the genocide. That's very likely false (or at least chancy – read the Feil's military analysis for Carnegie), but it's driven a huge amount of thinking on the hawkish left.

        To get all ad hominem: Samantha Power is a lawyer and journalist. She should no more be taken to be an authority on how to intervene successfully in conflicts than Tom Friedman (or me). And we saw how his advice turned out.

        1. anotherpanacea Avatar

          Thanks Daniel. That's what I have in mind, too, though I find that the analysis you're laying out isn't very ideological. It's certainly not the same thing as an imperialist ideology, in any case, which is one claim that's floating around: that liberals and neo-conservatives have a kind of class-solidarity on these matters.

          I'd describe your list as five beliefs shared by humanitarian hawks: it's an "ideology" only in the sense that my grandfather has a "philosophy." Power does seem to have those beliefs. One or all of them may be false, or sometimes wrong, or wrong in the expansive way they are applied. (She's certainly not an authority deserving deference!) It's hard to say, but the evidence is mounting against her.

          Since genocide is a recent phenomenon, we don't yet have "best practices" for addressing potential genocidal threats. (Of course, this isn't genocide, it's civil war. Civil war is much older, and I think there's a bit more received practical wisdom available there.) As a result, we have to evaluate evidence for these claims in a probabilistic way, discounting for uncertainty.

          In my post, I spent a bit of time focusing on your #2: that the best response is a military response. I find the evidence regarding that claim militates against military responses, but even if I'm wrong about the evidence, doesn't the fact that I could make that claim demonstrate that we can have disagreements about this "hegemonic" "system of thinking" without invoking the apparatus of Marxian social theory?

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