Thursday, March 24, 2011

To Intervene Or Not To Intervene?

Fading Mural
Fading Mural, Dresden, 2010

There's a lot of debate about the Libyan intervention. That can only be a good thing, I think. Not so good is much of the quality of the arguments in that debate. There's a lot of knee-jerk nonsense on both sides, and a few very solid arguments, also on both sides. I'm really having a hard time deciding whether I support this action or not.

Bad Arguments Against

"If we're intervening in Libya, why not Darfur, Bahrain, Yemen...?" Yeah, sure, there's a double standard. International politics is a jungle. An intervention will only happen if somebody powerful enough to intervene feels that it's in its national interest to do so—or at least not against its interest not to do so. It will never be possible to intervene everywhere it's needed. That means that the logical implication of this argument is "we should never intervene anywhere," but there are much better arguments in favor of that position. The big flaw with this argument is that it implicitly concedes that intervention is justified in all of these places, then plops you in a place where you can't in practice intervene anywhere. That's a bit too much like a witch's trial by fire for my blood.

"It's only about the oil." We already had Libyan oil. Who d'you think was pumping it? BP, that's who. The oil companies were entirely satisfied with the arrangements they had with Qaddafi, and would have been quite happy to keep them going. Obviously we'd be less interested if there was no oil to start with, but this clearly isn't the imperialist grab for oil that some quarters make it out to be. If it was that, we'd be propping up Qaddafi, not tearing him down.

"It's an imperialist war." The assumption behind this statement is that the Western powers are irredeemably bad, and therefore by definition anything they do anywhere is also irredeemably bad. I don't think so. I think the Western powers are no worse than other powers, and perhaps a little better than some. We're not really all that special. Turkey serves as a nice case in point—despite being a poster boy for Islamic democracy, they've been playing a great power game with the best of them, and as the Arab Spring wrecked that strategy, have been pretty much out of the game. Nor do I think the rising powers of China, Brazil, and India are likely to be any more benign on the world stage than the declining Western ones. Nor worse, for that matter.

Bad Arguments For

"It is our duty to intervene whenever we can stop bloodshed or bring liberty." Is it? Who appointed us—for any value of "us"—as policemen of the world, riding to the rescue of suffering people anywhere? One of the slogans of the Third Reich was "Deutscher Sieg—Europas Freiheit." Everybody everywhere fights for justice and freedom. These kinds of broad appeals can be used to justify anything. Perhaps the only use of Bad Argument (1) above is to counter this bad argument. There are way too many commentators shedding a manly tear for the courage and compassion we show by getting into this thing. This is pretty much a rehash of Kipling's famous White Man's Burden: paternalistic, myopic, and incredibly irritating.

"We must save the Arab revolution." We're not, and we can't. It's an Arab revolution, remember? The Arabs have had quite enough of being "saved" by Westerners, thank you very much. Even if the intervention succeeds in toppling Qaddafi, we will have stolen the Arab revolution, not saved it. Once more, their fates will have been decided from on high, in European cabinets.

"We're only stopping a humanitarian disaster, nothing more." No, we're not. We're intervening in favor of one group against another group. Once in, we're in, and it'll become increasingly more difficult to get out. These things tend to escalate, and it's by no means out of the question that Europeans and Americans will be in Libya as occupiers a few years down the line.

Good Arguments Against

"Interventions, however well-intentioned, have a lousy track record." I've been racking my brains about it, and I can't think of a single Western intervention since World War II that has been an unqualified success, and only a few that have resulted in a situation arguable better than the alternative. The usually touted model, Gulf War I, is at best a mixed bag: a great success for the US and Kuwait, and a definite improvement for Iraqi Kurds, but a disaster for millions of Iraqis, especially the Shi'ite majority.

"What's plan B? What's the strategic objective? What's the exit strategy if this fails?" I've discussed this previously, and would really like to know. Suppose the no-fly zone and air strikes on Qaddafi's armor fail to stop him. Then what? What if this fails disastrously in some way. How do we get out? We can hardly just keep bombing the damn place forever, can we?

"Who are these rebels, really?" I have no idea, and some of the information coming from there is... worrying. They're already fighting with each other. It's at least a big possibility that if Qaddafi does go down, Libya will collapse into civil war between the tribes that make it up. There's also no guarantee that the rebels' reprisals won't be in the same ballpark of awful as Qaddafi's reprisals against the rebels would have been. This could drag on for decades and kill more people than even the awful massacre Qaddafi would surely perpetrate if he did win. And if the rebels end up stringing people from the lampposts too, how will we feel about that?

"This is a fight for the Libyans, not us." A revolution stolen by external powers is worse than a failed revolution. If the rebellion does fail, we could help the Libyans in other ways—deal with the refugees, put political and economic pressure on Qaddafi, find ways to help the resistance against him as it moves underground, and so on. This is their fight, and it is both hubristic and paternalistic to think we can win it for them.

Good Arguments For

"Doing nothing carries a cost too." Qaddafi was poised to retake Benghazi. That would've been an epic bloodbath. It's quite clear that that's been averted for now. Should we really have just stood by and watched as his thugs hang people from the lampposts? Intervening is dangerous and uncertain, but so is not intervening. Is the cost of intervention—human and otherwise—really higher than not intervening?

"If not Libya, then when?" The Libyan intervention has formal approval by the United Nations, making it unquestionably legal internationally. It was requested by the Arab League. It has broad international participation. The intervention is in favor of a genuine popular uprising that has both requested it and enthusiastically supports it. Qaddafi is just about as awful a dictator as you get, and he had overtly threatened to kill everybody resisting him. If we're to make humanitarian interventions at all, then what more could we possibly ask for, in this messy world we live in?

"Speed is of the essence." We could've kept debating the justification for the intervention, carefully constructed an alliance, set up plans A, B, and C, assembled a command structure, liaised with the rebels... and by then, it would've all been over and we would be dealing with a victorious Qaddafi perpetrating a huge bloodbath. Doing it at all means dealing with all the uncertainties in Good Arguments Against (2).

"We can't give dictators free rein." We may not be able to intervene everywhere, but not intervening here would've made it clear to the other Middle Eastern dictators that we would not intervene anywhere, giving them a free hand to do whatever they see fit to their captive populations. They would have been encouraged to turn violent oppression into unrestrained bloodbaths, from Yemen and Bahrain to Syria and Algeria. Is it right to do that?

Where Does That Leave Us?

At least me, conflicted. I almost wish I had a clear-cut, strong ideological base to dispel all this confusion. If I believed that violence is never justified, even in self-defense or defending another, there would be no problem: this is just wrong and we should find other ways to help them. If I believed that Western powers are irredeemably corrupt and dead-set on oppressing and exploiting every other people on the planet, no matter what, it'd also be dead simple. Conversely, if I believed that Western powers are shining paragons of freedom and democracy and the highest summits of social, political, and moral development the world has yet seen, there would be no problem either. White man's burden and all that commotion.

But I lack that kind of moral clarity. When I look at what really happens, it's almost always unexpected consequences that rule the day. This holds for both sides of the argument. We know that not intervening would have awful consequences. The ultimate outcome of intervention is far less certain, both for good and for ill. I do know I'd tilt more in favor if some of those uncertainties about Plan B and who, exactly, we're dealing with were dispelled.

So I'm right back to where I started. If I thought the intervention had a good chance of achieving its aims—swiftly toppling Qaddafi and helping along a transition to a freer and more decent Libya—I'd be all for it. But I'm not. On optimistic days, I think that something like that is a possibility. On pessimistic ones, I feel that the likeliest outcome is worse than not intervening at all—a victorious Qaddafi getting his bloodbath anyway, and then taking it out on everybody involved, or perhaps a blood-drenched and protracted civil war.

As it is, I'm just glad my opinion doesn't matter the least bit. If I had to be actually making these life-and-death decisions, I would not be sleeping well at all. It would make feel a little bit better to hear that Sarkozy, Cameron, and Obama aren't sleeping that well either. This question is anything but simple.


  1. I'll accept the rewrite and say that interventions have a lousy track record -- adding that the track record makes me suspicious of western powers' intentions. In particular, reading over U.N. Resolution 1973, which authorizes a no-fly zone, enforcement of an arms embargo, and freezing of assets -- I detect a clear case of "mission creep" as the allied forces clearly pursue a policy of regime change, whereas the U.N. calls for a cease fire rather than trying to determine the outcome of the civil war.

  2. Suspicious is good. But sliding from that into cynicism is, IMO, as big a mistake as seeing Western powers as unsullied defenders of liberty and justice. That's one reason I'm so fascinated by international politics—it's so complex, with few unquestionable heroes or villains, so many people and motivations and structures. The simple explanations are always wrong, but in international politics they're especially wrong.

  3. Thanks for sorting all those pros and cons, bad, worse and worser, as it were, neatly and trying to at least shine a little light into all the options that make this so confusing. About the only thing that's obvious here, as your new header says, is that whatever position you take, it's not that simple.

  4. Arg ! I had posted a long reply and the stupid website took it away !

    In brief, I think lots of backhanded dealings must have happened.
    I think there must have been at least some planning before the protests even started and that the protests gave whoever a good opportunity.
    I don't understand the Arab League's approval, since they're all in the same boat.
    I think Gadhaffi must have pissed people off to get this kind of response.
    I think that Gadhaffi has been specifically targeted for whatever reason instead of Syria', Jordan's, Yemen's or Bahrain's leaders.
    I don't get why the AU is screaming bloody murder ?
    I think that there's too many things we don't know.

    I think we should get some WikiLeaks going :)

    And very good post PJ :)

  5. Backhanded dealings: for sure. The Arab League demand and the UN resolution would never have happened without that.

    Planning before the protests: possible, at a contingency plannign level, since the unrest spread to Egypt in a big way, but unlikely before that.

    Arab League: yup, I've been wondering about that too. Perhaps they wanted to mollify their populations and Western opinion by what they thought would be a symbolic declaration?

    Qaddafi pissing everyone off: yeah, did he ever. He must be regretting calling King Abdullah a 'lying dog' a couple of years ago...

    Why Qaddafi and not the others? I think it's fairly obvious: all the others have powerful friends. Besides, the shit only hit the fan in Syria the day before yesterday, and in Jordan yesterday.

    The AU: Qaddafi has been giving them humongous amounts of money over the years.

    Things we don't know: are there ever!

    And thanks.

  6. One of the most persuasive "for" arguments I've seen yet is here, courtesy of Juan Cole.