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.”

Duh… Terrorism is an ‘ism’

The entry for “terrorisme” in the 1989 Encyclopaedia Universalis begins: “To terrorize does not mean to ‘terrify,’ to ‘strike with fear,’ but following [the nineteenth centurty lexicographer] Littré ‘to establish terrorism, the rule of terror.” (my translation) This usage of the word originated in the revolutionary government of France, specifically a period between September 1793 and July 1794 when the entire government was subsumed under the Committee for Public Safety, lead by Maximilien Robespierre, and thousands of people were put to death by Guillotin’s beheading machine. This explains why the French still think of terrorism primary as government through arbitrary violence and state-sanctioned murder perpetrated on its own citizens. What we have come to call in English ‘terrorism,’ with its international and domestic (but unsanctioned) sub-divisions, is apparently unrelated, a false cognate.

When we reserve the term ‘terrorism’ for institutional violence directed at domestic enemies, the actions of contemporary bombers and guerrillas appear to fit within the category of crimes. Indeed, even in the contemporary context there are good arguments for describing militant zealots and suicide bombers as criminals, guilty of crimes against humanity, or acts of genocide. It is not clear what the notion of ‘terror’ adds to our understanding of their aims and purposes, save that, like all crime, we fear becoming its victim.

This redescription does not even preclude waging the ‘war’ on terrorism that the US administration coined following the 9/11 attacks: the so-called terrorists of Al-Quaeda are simply war criminals, part of ad hoc and non-territorial militaries who have attacked without a formal declaration of war. In either case (war or crime), we need not have invented new categories like ‘enemy combatant’ or ‘terrorism.’

I usually point to G.W.F. Hegel to justify this alternative typology, since his reading of the French Revoluton is so crucial for me. Using the events of that revolution to critique the work of Jean-Jacques Rouuseau, he perfectly sums up the theoretical conflict that we would come to apply to the Nazis and the Soviets. Terror, for Hegel, was explicitly the weapon of the victorious faction. That is, it was intended to designate an instrument of the state in its claim to represent the general will, based on its failure to do so perfectly. Fear of death, which has been the absolute master from the first encounter between individuals resulted in physical conflict to determine superiority, is not the same as terror in Hegel’s use.

Terror is the specific fear of death by state sanction for opposing the will of the people in thought or action. It is a kind of subservience to the claim of universality that threatens to cause the individual to allow herself to be enslaved in body and mind. In practice, Terror is the result of fatal forms of punishment used injudiciously but in a juridical mode, rather than the gratuitous and random acts of deadly violence unleashed by factions with no state support at all.

On Hegel’s account, it is difficult to see why a suicide bomber would be called a terrorist, except perhaps that they espouse a cause. A politically motivated hijacker is no more than a criminal who, by his methods, denies the very notion of law or universal rule. Without state legitimacy, it cannot live up to the real fearfulness of a power that kills out of suspicion of intention rather than as punishment for an action. The very indiscriminateness of modern-day terrorist fatalities denies this possibility. Much closer to Hegel’s definition of terror would be the fear of being singled out as a potential politically motivated criminal; this fear of suspicion and accusation carries all the significant signs of terror.

Another sort of connection can be made between state-sanction and terrorism, both as a definitional matter and in practice. The myth of an outlaw billionaire mastermind, our current model for Osama bin Laden, corresponds best with the absurd arch-enemies that confront James Bond. Frankly, it is quite impossible to be a billionaire, or even a millionaire, without governmental support. Not only must those millions be issued as currency by nation-states and stored in banks, but they must be amassed with the assistance of political power and against the possibility of taxation or regulation. The weapons and training needed to commit acts of terrorism are only available at the behest, or through the willful ignorance, of nation-states and international regulatory bodies. In the case of al-Quaeda, both bin Ladin’s initial fortune and his subsequent support can be traced to two nations, militaries, and covert espionage agencies: the USA and Saudi Arabia.

In a very real sense, then, the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 were state-supported, and the ‘rule of terror’ instituted came with the implicit sanction of at least one nation-state: Saudi Arabia. Just as Robespierre, who was convicted and put to death on the guillotine using the same spurious rules he had instituted, did not know exactly what targets would be chosen by the terroristes, but merely gave them the justification that led to his own execution, my claim is not that either the US or Saudi governments expected the most recent attacks. However, part of my argument is that the reasonable expectations of bureaucracies fall far short of those occurrences for which they ought to be seen as the cause. Providing the tools, motivation, and financing for the murder of innocents is a necessary (and perhaps even sufficient) condition for those murders: it is a cause, and not an insignificant or approximate one.

Now, if Hegel’s typology separates criminals from state-actors, and domestic state-actors from international ones, such that all acts of violence must be understood as either crime, state-terror, or warfare, what is the value in this new amalgamation that drives the so-called ‘war’ on ‘terror’? Why move from clear distinctions to murky ambiguities? The answer, I believe, is that we have systematically participated in an error in judgment. By telling ourselves we are fighting terrorism, when in fact we’re waging war, we’ve created a confused set of expectations and restrictions. Basically, we don’t know what we are doing.

It’s that simple: we wage war as if we are enforcing the law; we fight for freedom from mortality and danger, against organizations that do nothing to restrict our liberty, and we savor the irrational fear that notorious masterminds and fanatical bogeymen may be out to get us. In so doing, we separate ourselves from the thoughtful work that past generations have left us to deal with these problems: piracy and the hostis humanitis, suspicion of increasing our own state’s powers for interminable emergencies, and the racial/religious intolerances that only bolster our own sense of righteousness. If the context were Protestants v. Catholics, or whites v. blacks, we’d know that these techniques don’t work. For some reason, we think that this time, for this conflict, we’ve managed to discover an exception.