Monday, March 21, 2011

The problem with humanitarian interventions

Ross Douthat is clearly right when he calls the action in Libya "a clinic in the liberal way of war":
In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.
This way has its advantages. It "spreads the burden of military action, sustains rather than weakens our alliances, and takes the edge off the world’s instinctive anti-Americanism." It also has its disadvantages:
Because liberal wars depend on constant consensus-building within the (so-called) international community, they tend to be fought by committee, at a glacial pace, and with a caution that shades into tactical incompetence. And because their connection to the national interest is often tangential at best, they’re often fought with one hand behind our back and an eye on the exits, rather than with the full commitment that victory can require.
But it's not even clear that this is a genuine coalition effort. In "The Coalition Has No Clothes", Justin Elliot posts this report of NBC's Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski:

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I am utterly conflicted about this. I despise Qaddafi's actions. On the other hand, though we are bombing Libya in the name of protecting civilians, bombing itself is notorious for causing much of the civilian deaths in modern warfare. I wonder, in fact, if bombing can in any way be justified as a method of war in light of classic just war theory. Bombing campaigns seem mainly to be used as a way of waging war with minimum loss of American lives. Obviously, the fewer lives lost the better. It also, incidentally, is a good way of maintaining popular support of the war effort. But bombing does always increase civilian deaths.

This is intended to be a humanitarian intervention. Nevertheless, violence always leads to more violence. There are Libyan children today who have lost their fathers. How much hatred are we fertilizing in those little hearts? I know. I know. War is hell. Justice is sometimes a very messy business. I also know these words of Jesus:
Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble." (Luke 17:1-2)


  1. I'm not conflicted about this at all. Our intervention in Libya is wrong. Unfortunately, it is yet more evidence that Obama is little better than Bush on foreign policy and military matters. In fact on t.v. Sunday, I saw Paul Wolfowitz, one of the leading neocons and one of the prime architects of the Iraq debacle praising Obama for his actions in Libya. George Will sensibly opposed him. An interesting summary of their exchange can be found here:

    We have no national interest at stake in Libya and no business meddling in another country's internal affairs, especially inserting ourselves into a messy civil war. While Qaddafi is indeed a brutal tyrant, he isn't exactly the only brutal tyrant in the world. And America should not be the world's policeman. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the opposition to Qaddafi is democratic or could create a better regime for the Libyan people should they actually topple Qaddafi. I see a whole host of ways in which this latest military adventure could end badly for the United States.


  2. Bronson: I'm sympathetic to what you're saying. And, yes, we're continually seeing evidence that Obama is disturbingly similar to Bush. (They may be in different parties but they share the philosophy of neoliberal globalism.)

    I'd be a pacifist if it wasn't for my hesitation to condemn violence used in defense of others. That's why I'm hesitant to be wholly against this intervention. But, as you say, there are a lot of other humanitarian crises in the world. And, like you, I can think of a lot of ways this ends up badly for us. Humanitarian wars don't have a great history. On the whole, I'm more against this than for it.

  3. Jeremy,

    Although I'm very skeptical of military solutions, I'm not a pacifist either. I agree with you that self-defense/defense of others is a legitimate reason to fight a war. However, beginning with St. Augustine, theologians who have written about the idea of "just war" have noted that a war is just only under very specific and narrow circumstances. I have my doubts that our intervention in Libya would qualify. By the way, another question about all this: if Libya (unlike say Darfur) didn't possess 2% of the world's oil, would we be involved? I have my doubts.


  4. 2% of the world's oil, huh? Well that answers a heckuva lot of questions.

  5. I am so utterly baffled by liberal opposition to this action. It couldn't be clearer win for liberal, humanitarian values. We have just prevented a massacre of historic proportions. Gaddafi was a day or two away from obliterating Benghazi. Everyone there expected to die this week. Would people feel better if we just let them all be murdered? Would that make us feel like our hands were clean? Are people who don't have oil the only ones worthy of assistance? Should we ignore the plight of Arabs and only help other nations? The liberal objections to this are utter craziness. Yes there are other humanitarian crises out there, but few of them can be helped by a no-fly zone. Libya is a special case because Gaddafi was bombing his cities. Stopping that was doable, and we did it. I call that a good thing, period.

    As for casualties, there are no (credible) reports of civilian casualties. The targets have been anti-aircraft guns, radar stations, and tanks. This is not anti-terrorism, which is more prone to "collateral damage." If we had done nothing there would have been tens of thousands of dead in Benghazi today. Which would people prefer? Would the mountains of corpses rest easier on your consciences than a few fried military installations?

  6. I'll call it a win for liberal, humanitarian values when we get out of there quickly, with minimal loss of life, and the situation in Libya is demonstrably better. Until then I'm going to be ambivalent at best.

    You have to understand the utter soul-weariness many Americans feel at the prospect of yet another war. I understand the need for something to be done in Libya. But we've been at war for 10 years now and many of us hoped the election of Obama would bring that period to a close. Now, here we are again. To be honest, my selfish, instinctual response has been this: if this is going to be such an easy mission then how about the UK, Canada (no offense :) ), France, other Europeans, and some Arab nations do it and leave us out of it. I'm not in the mood (not that my opinion makes a difference one way or another) for signing on to another military campaign that will probably end up with more dead Americans. Can you blame me?

  7. Sylvia,

    So far people in Libya are either 1) pro-Qaddafi 2) anti-Qaddafi 3) people who are just trying to keep their heads down and remain neutral on the sidelines. It is also worth pointing out that as a nation, Libya is composed of several tribes, including a few in the western part of the nation that appear loyal to the regime.

    This means that we have inserted ourselves into a civil war in Libya. By bombing both Qaddafi's air force and ground forces, we have effectively sided with the rebels. However, we know virtually nothing about these rebels. We don't know if the are democratic, or Islamists or simply tribal and military factions fed up with Qaddafi. Or all of the above. And while our air strikes have in the short run prevented further civilian deaths, in the long run they could prolong this civil war, leading to more deaths still. Moreover, should the rebels manage to win, which without foreign ground forces is by no means a given, we can't be sure that they wouldn't massacre pro-Qaddafi people. And what then? Would we turn around and bomb the rebels to prevent them from massacring civilians?

    I'm with Jeremy about the soul-weariness of another war. More than emotions, however, I just see so many ways that this intervention could lead to very negative unintended consequences.


  8. Jeremy, no I don't blame Americans for being "gun shy." Unfortunately this is what happens when the boy cries "Wolf!" too often. When it's a real wolf nobody answers.

    I made a mistake, there are not tens of thousands of people in Benghazi but 700,000. They surely would have been slaughtered (and raped) without the NFZ. "Get out" too soon and the loss of life will be maximal, not minimal.

  9. Bronson, having followed the uprising from the beginning (i.e. a month before it registered in the US) it does appear that these are people who want democracy, just as their neighbours on either side and throughout the Arab world right now. I don't think demonstrating peacefully (at first) and getting mowed down by attack helicopters is how clan warfare works! The rebels took up arms to avoid getting killed, though not very successfully. The conflict was almost over by the time the NFZ came in; Benghazi was basically the last stand after Gaddafi's troops had retaken, with untold bloodshed, all the territory previously secured by the rebels. This is not a civil war in the sense of two factions of citizens fighting; it's the Gaddafi and his hired guns against Libyans who want democracy. If the democrats win, the aftermath will be an election. If Gaddafi wins, the aftermath will be a bloodbath and no chance of democracy for perhaps a generation. Whatever soul-weariness we may feel watching a war from the comfort of our livingrooms is nothing to the soul-weariness of losing your loved ones and gaining nothing but more repression.

    Here's a vignette from today. A group of protesters went, unarmed, to challenge a (probably for-hire) pro-Gaddafi rally. They went in peace and yet several were killed. And you're worried that they will slaughter the (supposed) pro-Gaddafi people?

    I think the big problem here is a lack of information about what is going on there. Partly that's because of communications blackouts and the harassment and detention of reporters by the Gaddafi regime. And partly it's because people are joining the program, due to the US military involvement, when it's half over and don't know what's going on. Liberals replay the Iraq script (oil-producing Arab country, what else could it be?) and conservatives replay the Egypt script (what if the terrorists take over!?!), or simply don't give a hoot about genocide in some foreign country, and so everyone is against it. It's a sad joke that the country is finally united in opposing an action that is globally recognized as necessary and good.

    Of course we don't know how this will all turn out. That's life. It's not a reason not to try to make things work. History tells us exactly what will happen if we do nothing. We can hardly do worse here.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.