Strategic Dialogue: Libya War

Air strike in LibyaIn the second part of our strategic dialogue on the Libya War, Robert Naiman and Ian Williams respond to their initial essays. You can read the original essays here: Naiman’s anti-intervention essay Surprise War for Regime Change in Libya is the Wrong Path and Ian Williams’ pro-intervention essay Armchair Anti-Imperialists and Libya.

Ian Williams

Robert Naiman makes many excellent points, which tend however to prove my major point. Like many peers he looks at intervention in Libya from a narcissistic Americo-centric point of view, evading the key question. When a group of people who are about to be massacred ask for help, what do you do?

Instead, Naiman presents a survey of constitutional positions and American attitudes to the war which essentially replicates the lessons of 1939. The default American position is usually isolationist, and the Good Samaritan is not a popular parable in American political discourse.

It was not the White House that started the operation. The Libyan plea went to the Security Council of the United Nations – with the support of much of the Libyan diplomatic corps, one might point out. The UN resolution does not call for a no-fly zone. It called directly for military intervention to protect civilians – and to assuage those justifiably wary of US involvement in the region after Iraq, or indeed Susan Rice’s veto of the resolution against Israeli settlements, it precluded occupying forces.

It is not unilateral, or even mainly U.S. military intervention, and all the evidence is that Washington was chivvied into helping by its Middle Eastern and European allies. Washington, as we have seen, has been happily buying oil from Gaddafi and has a high tolerance for atrocities by its allies.

In fact, one would never guess that from news reports most of the close-up air sorties are being flown not by Americans but by French and other air forces, who, one hopes, would have proceeded regardless of the U.S,Congress.

Frankly, I wish the United States had stayed out of it and simply blessed and assisted the Europeans and Arabs. But having by far the world’s biggest military occasionally entails obligations as well opportunities for aggression.

It is indeed entirely possible that the respite awarded the rebels will result in regime change. And why is that a bad thing? This regime responded to peaceful demonstrations demanding popular power by gunning down its own people. This regime accepted the validity of the UN resolution and immediately declared a ceasefire, just before launching indiscriminate air and artillery attacks on its own cities.

If Hugo Chavez’s negotiations had delayed the attacks on Gaddafi’s tanks, Benghazi and its citizenry would today be a smoldering pile. The International Criminal Court referral was intended to send a message to Gaddafi that there would be consequences, that he had no impunity. He ignored that message. Is there a way to protect civilians that leaves intact a dictatorial regime that has pledged bloody vengeance against its own citizenry?

In the end, those who oppose the intervention would do so whether or not Congress approved it, just as those who opposed intervention in Iraq because it had no UN mandate, even though Congress shamefully approved, now oppose this one even though the UN voted for it – and Congress has not said anything either way.

When people cry for help you do what you can. And yes, what happened in Bahrain is shameful, even though the regime has yet to use airpower and artillery against its own city. So rather than opposing intervention in Libya, it would be much more constructive to call on the United States to cut off relations with Bahrain, or indeed Saudi Arabia, until the repression stops. But opposition is always easy, while calling for action involves taking responsibility for the results.

Robert Naiman

Ian Williams’s initial tone is disturbing but perhaps revealing. He begins with an assault on progressive critics of the Western military intervention as “comfortable Western leftists” engaged in “cultural imperialism.” The thrust of his argument here seems to be that if you criticize the Western military intervention, you must be a Gaddafi-lover.

Such insults are depressingly familiar. When we opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we were called Saddam lovers. When we questioned the indefinite U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan, we were accused of supporting the Taliban.

Some may find such “arguments” convincing. On me, they have the opposite effect. If critics of military intervention are being accused of devotion to a foreign political force, probably the intervention is a rotten enterprise. After all, if supporters of military intervention had good arguments, presumably they would lead with those.

Williams suggests that “Libyans” support the current Western military intervention. Indeed, some Libyans do support it. Other Libyans do not. Clearly, many Libyans in Benghazi support the current Western military intervention. Just as clearly, many Libyans in Tripoli and Sirte don’t support the current Western military intervention. If we care about the opinions of “Libyans,” it’s not obvious why the opinions of these Libyans in Tripoli and Sirte should count for zero.

Anytime the United States intervenes militarily on one side of a civil conflict there will be people in the country – and exiles – in favor. There were Iraqis who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There are Afghans who would like U.S. troops to stay indefinitely. Is the fact that this is so the end of discussion? We have to support a foreign military intervention if a group of Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans support it? These views should certainly be considered, but are we not allowed to consider anything else? Should the fact that a group of people support a Western military intervention automatically trump all other concerns? This argument does not seem serious to me.

Williams appears to be unconcerned by, and indeed to welcome, the morphing of the military intervention from “protecting civilians” to “regime change.” But indifference to or support of this transformation would make a mockery of any kind of accountability for Western military operations. You could sell public opinion on one thing, obtain a UN Security Council resolution, and then do something else entirely. This would mean that “Responsibility to Protect” would become “unlimited license to do anything.” One might think those who support the principle of “Responsibility to Protect” would see this as a threat to the invocation of this principle in the future. I was more sympathetic to “Responsibility to Protect” before I saw how it was used in this case; if the conclusion of the current military operation is military regime change rather than a negotiated solution, I will hold that against future invocations of “Responsibility to Protect.”

Williams dismisses concerns of critics of the military intervention as “ad hoc.” But many of these concerns are longstanding. We are concerned about the exclusion of Congress and the pubic, as before. As I argued, this is not a side issue to those working against U.S. wars. Rather, it is crucial to future efforts. We are concerned about the expense of foreign military intervention at a time of domestic cuts, as before. We are concerned about proposals that the United States arm people who may have been involved in terrorism in the past and may be involved in terrorism in the future, as before. We are concerned about selective focus on abuses of a U.S. “enemy,” while the abuses of U.S. “allies” are ignored and even encouraged, as before. And, as I argued in my piece, this is not merely a question of “hypocrisy” and “double-standards.” In general, selective focus contributes to indifference and support of abuses by allies. In the present case, there is considerable evidence that the military intervention in Libya is directly related to effective U.S. support for the crackdown in Bahrain.

Williams does acknowledge problems going forward, when he suggests Russia (and presumably others) could be a better watchdog. Here we agree. But for this to happen, some things must change. It’s hard to be an effective watchdog if those you’re monitoring have carte blanche. This means we must insist that Security Council resolutions not give carte blanche in theory or practice and that sharp distinctions be maintained between “protecting civilians” and other measures undertaken and considered, such as supporting rebel military advances with air strikes, attacking military forces not engaged in attacking civilians or poised to do so, arming rebels, and military regime change.

Ian Williams

There is no doubt that some of the opposition to intervention does indeed come from Gaddafi lovers. As we saw with Saddam Hussein and see with Hugo Chavez now, an anti-U.S. posture seems to give sundry authoritarian thugs a lot of leeway in some sections of the left. But I did not once suggest that equation.

However the key issue is not affection for Gaddafi but rather indifference to suffering and injustice elsewhere. It is indeed possible that there was a cynical trade-off between Bahrain and Libya. But is anyone suggesting that if there had been no action in Libya, the United States would have swooped to the defense of Bahraini dissidents?

The issue is irrelevant to the core question. Did the intervention stop massacres of Libyans? The answer is, irrefutably, yes. The question now is: will it continue to improve their lot? The answer to that is probably yes, but naturally we cannot be entirely sure.

The simple test of Gaddafi’s popularity would of course be an election – which he refuses to allow, suggesting that whatever his eccentricities, deep down he is in touch with reality. I am all in favor of changing regimes that are oppressive and murderous, even though the principle, especially with foreign interference, is to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. That was certainly the case in Iraq, despite Blair’s attempt to mask it as a humanitarian intervention. It is not the case in Libya, as many living citizens of Tobruk and Benghazi can now testify.

As for the carte blanche, any reading of Resolution 1973 would show that far from carte blanche, it hemmed the operation in with many provisos, including a ban on occupying forces. Some of those restrictions actually increase the risk of civilian casualties but were understandable in the context of previous U.S. abuse of UN resolutions. But the apparatus for monitoring is clearly laid out in the resolution, more strongly than in previous Chapter VII resolutions. If the Russians had eschewed posturing for a domestic and international audience they could have refined those provisions and involved themselves more closely.

Robert Naiman

Again Ian Williams comes with the gratuitous insults: “narcissistic,” “Americo-centric,” etc. And again I say: among fair-minded people, those who engage in gratuitous ad hominem attacks weaken rather than strengthen their argument.

I see Williams’ argument as amounting to a classic bait-and-switch. On the one hand, all of us must declare whether we would support Western military intervention to block the Libyan government’s assault on Benghazi, and we must answer this question in isolation. In answering this question, we are not allowed to consider anything outside of this. Most importantly, we are not allowed to consider where the Western military intervention would lead and what other consequences it would have.

But once we say yes to this hypothetical – hypothetical because the event does not exist in isolation – then it’s made clear that what we have agreed to is not something that we can purchase a la carte. Rather, it is part of a package deal, “terms subject to change without notice,” which may, among other things, include: bombing Libyan soldiers who are not attacking or menacing civilians, arming rebels, overthrowing the Libyan government with foreign military power; and increased likelihood of U.S. military interventions in the future.

Let’s sharpen the hypothetical. Suppose that on the Saturday morning that the United States began bombing, President Obama called me on the phone and said, “Now, I realize that until now I haven’t allowed you to have any effective input into this decision. But now I’m letting you decide. If you say yes, I go forward. If you say no, the military operation is called off. It’s all up to you. But let me make one thing clear: this is the last time I will ever consider your opinion. If you say yes, you agree to everything that happens afterwards, in which you will have no say whatsoever.”

At its root, this is the question I understand Williams to be asking.

And my answer is that I emphatically reject the premise. The central organizing principle of my political work on this front since 1983 is to reject the premise that I and my fellow members of the general U.S. public have no say in U.S. foreign policy, except perhaps to ratify wars that other people have already decided to embrace. If that will be called “narcissistic” and “Americo-centric,” so be it. I take responsibility for living in the United States. Others should too.

Robert Naiman is the policy director at Just Foreign Policy and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Ian Williams, senior analyst and long time contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, is a New York-based author and journalist. He is currently working on a new edition of his book, The UN For Beginners.