Confronting the Urge to Urge on the Libyan Intervention

An airstrike is one of the most horrendous phenomena on earth. But were I constitutionally capable of supporting them, I’d find it hard to resist those that the United States and NATO have called in on the Gaddafi regime.

Most progressives reflexively condemn foreign intervention by the United States; the use of armed forces is condoned only in self defense. In effect, though, they’re making common cause with a branch of conservatives — libertarians — not out of their principles of isolationism and respect for sovereign states (also known to libertarians as mind-your-own-business), but because of the United States’ poor track record.

However understandable, that response shuts the door on a room in our psyche. Perhaps I’m just projecting my own childhood trauma, but I think many of us have experienced the desperation of being picked on or bullied. We yearn for someone to intervene and come to your rescue. On a larger scale, no sadder story exists than the rescue that either doesn’t arrive on time or that isn’t even dispatched. In recent years, the classic case is Rwanda.

Because of the perception that she twisted the arm of President Obama to intervene and is considered a shill for humanitarian intervention thinly disguised as imperialism, Samantha Power is out of favor with progressives. But her 2007 book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, was an eloquent plea to identify genocide before it happens and prevent it.

Worse from the standpoint of almost the entire political spectrum, the concept of a world government that stands at the ready to dispense armed forces to trouble spots without concerns for state sovereignty doesn’t cause an allergic reaction in me. In a 2008 column for the Financial Times Gideon Rachman acknowledged that world government represents “the kind of ideas that get people reaching for their rifles in America’s talk-radio heartland.” But, he wrote of the European Union:

So could the European model go global? . . . a change in the political atmosphere suggests that “global governance” could come much sooner than that. The financial crisis and climate change are pushing national governments towards global solutions, even in countries such as China and the US that are traditionally fierce guardians of national sovereignty.

Add the imperative to abolish nuclear weapons to the financial crisis and climate change and you have a troika of causes making the case for global government. After all, under what authority do you think we on earth will be living 500 years from now? Sovereign states will be a distant memory. Let’s get on with it.

In fact, once states see the benefits that other states that have cast their lot together are receiving, suddenly state sovereignty loses its luster. Ian Williams explains in a 2009 World Policy Journal article.

Ironically, Albanians, Kosovars, and Serbs — along with all their neighbors in the Balkan cockpit of nationalities — unite in sharing the same overriding ambition. They all desperately want to join the European Union, which would entail them giving up much of the sovereignty that they have been so zealously squabbling over. . . . European Union citizens can live and work anywhere they want within the EU, claim education, healthcare, and welfare benefits — and even vote in many elections. For all those nations, whose working definition of sovereignty seems to include the right, indeed the duty, to harass foreigners at the borders and inside them, this is serious self-denial in the interest of a broader human or economic security.

At first, except for the small detail that I can’t stomach airstrikes, I let my imagination run away with me and fantasized the Libya intervention as a new model for coming to the aid of a people in peril. Predictably, though, a closer look cast some doubt on just how calumnious the villain is and virtuous the beleaguered are. Besides, did the latter truly represent a substantial segment of their country’s people?

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt spoke for those who question whether Gaddafi would actually massacre Libyans.

. . . the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny. Although everyone recognizes that Qaddafi is a brutal ruler, his forces did not conduct deliberate, large-scale massacres in any of the cities he has recaptured, and his violent threats to wreak vengeance on Benghazi were directed at those who continued to resist his rule, not at innocent bystanders. . . . the threat of a bloodbath that would “[stain] the conscience of the world” (as Obama put it) was slight.

But Jon Western‘s response at Duck of Minerva is convincing in its comprehensiveness.

None of us are privy to the specific U.S. intelligence reports on Libya in the run-up to the March 18 Security Council decision, but both the CIA and the State Department now have strong war crimes and mass atrocity analysis units and. . . . we can infer from a number of things that there was a broadly held view (beyond just the views of the “fiery” Samantha Power) that there were real and credible threats to civilians. . . . we have the Arab League warning of serious threats to civilians, the United Nations Security Council has rarely acted as quickly as it did with UNSC Res 1973, and several human rights organizations issued specific warnings. In addition, both the ICRC and Medecins Sans Frontieres . . . issued warnings about the perils to civilian populations.

Furthermore. . . . Retributive politicide are strategies designed during or in the immediate aftermath of political rebellion and are often implemented by regimes when political rebellions have been defeated. We have plenty of cases of this phenomenon such as Sri Lanka, Guatemala, East Timor, Angola, and Sudan.

The selectiveness that the West demonstrated in singling out Libya at the expense of, say, Bahrain was universally commented on. As if we were going to intervene in Bahrain when it hosts our Fifth Fleet. Still, insult was added to injury. At Asia Times Online Pepe Escobar explains.

You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya – the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

But, many have asked, why should help be withheld from the Libyan people just because the United States turned its back on the protesters in Bahrain? It’s equally as heartless to use U.S. selectivity as a pretext to call for the United States and NATO to stand down on the Libya intervention simply out of principle.

As for whether the Libyan rebels represent the people, judging by the size of their forces, they may not. C.J. Chivers in the New York Times:

The rebel military, as it sometimes called, is not really a military at all. What is visible in battle here is less an organized force than the martial manifestation of a popular uprising. . . . And their numbers are small. Officials in the rebels’ transitional government have provided many different figures, sometimes saying 10,000 or men are under arms in their ranks. But a small fraction actually appear at the front each day — often only a few hundred.

Inevitably, Islamists have muddied the intentions of the rebels by horning in on the action. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Two former Afghan Mujahedeen and a six-year detainee at Guantanamo Bay have stepped to the fore of this city’s military campaign, training new recruits for the front and to protect the city from infiltrators loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi. . . . Abdel Hakim al-Hasady, an influential Islamic preacher and high-school teacher who spent five years at a training camp in eastern Afghanistan, oversees the recruitment, training and deployment of about 300 rebel fighters from Darna. . . . Sufyan Ben Qumu, a Libyan army veteran who worked for Osama bin Laden’s holding company in Sudan and later for an al Qaeda-linked charity in Afghanistan, is training many of the city’s rebel recruits.

Also, reports Gareth Porter:

Iraqi intelligence has indications that the original al Qaeda in Iraq network is in the process of leaving the country for Libya.

Perhaps most troubling of all to progressives was the administration’s failure to seek congressional approval and the dangerous precedent that sets. Still, as with withholding assistance because of Washington’s bias against helping the Bahraini protesters, it would have been dogmatic to spurn Libya out of concern that intervening without congressional approval would set a precedent.

In fact, an even more dangerous precedent may have been set. Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at Race for Iran on those who promote humanitarian intervention for their own purposes:

Above all, they want to establish a robust, international mechanism for humanitarian intervention, and saw the Administration’s response to the Libyan case as critical to this end. . . . Make no mistake — Obama has supplemented the George W. Bush doctrine of “preventive” war with his own doctrine of “preventive” humanitarian intervention. And there are clearly forces in the American body politic — if not within the Obama Administration itself — who would ultimately like to use this as a precedent for eventual action against Iran.

If not familiar with its history, you could be forgiven for wondering how a practice with such a benevolent name as humanitarian intervention got such a bad rap? After all the United Nations mandated the Responsibility to Protect. But, as mentioned earlier, it’s tough to be certain whether those on whose behalf you’re intervening are worthy beneficiaries. In the course of providing its recent history in a nutshell at BBC, Adam Curtis writes that

. . . humanitarian interventionism offers us no political way to judge who it is we are helping in Libya — and thus what the real consequences of our actions might be.

Even if one’s instincts are to help those fighting Gadaffi, it is no longer enough just to see it as a struggle of goodies against baddies. For it is precisely that simplification that has led to unreal fantasies about who we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite Responsibility to Protect, as long as states are sovereign, intervention will always be difficult to justify. Also, it’s time we realized that airstrikes are not the answer. Though capable of stamping out small forces, such as al Qaeda in Afghanistan, from this commentator’s perspective, their moral horror dictate that they be shelved in favor of — oh, no — the dreaded “boots on the ground.”

A central reason that the use of armed personnel becomes a dead end is because the intervening force allies itself with the force that’s facing extinction. Meanwhile, the concept of fighting terrorism is denounced on the premise that a tactic is not an enemy. But, in these kinds of situations, that’s exactly what’s needed.

The goal is to end the violence, not support a particular force. Then, for their part, should the beneficiaries of your aid themselves become repressive, the interventionnaires must be able to pivot on a dime and turn on them. And once the violence on both sides is quelled, absquatulate*. Of course, easier said than done.

*ab·squat·u·late intr. v. To depart in a hurry; abscond.