On the question of international intervention in Libya I’m afraid I can’t offer any deep insights or unique wisdom. I have read numerous arguments expressing support or reluctance about this engagement and, unfortunately, I have found both sets of arguments compelling. I’ll list some of those in a bit, but first let me try to explain how I’m trying to go about thinking about this.
I try to view military action primarily through the lens of just war theory. That ancient and wise approach generally makes a distinction between two sets of criteria, one for determining whether or not going to war is justifiable and the second for determining the just conduct of war once that first set of criteria are satisfied and war is under way. This latest conflict raises concerns for me with regard to both sets of criteria, mainly because I don’t think the two categories are as easily separated in practice as they are in the abstract.
One of the jus ad bellum criteria, for example, is that it must have a reasonable chance of success. That is not easily separable from the jus in bello questions regarding the proper conduct of the war in question. It is sometimes said that the question “Is it just?” is separate from “Is it wise?” but I’m not sure those questions are easily distinguished either. If it is unwise, then it seems unlikely to have a reasonable chance of success or to truly be the last resort — since presumably some other, wiser course (including, perhaps, doing nothing at all) is being regarded as wiser because it seems likelier to produce a better outcome (or less likely to produce a disastrous outcome).
If we completely separate the two sets of criteria — bracketing off considerations about the conduct of this intervention, even though I don’t think such considerations can really ever be separated off — then I think a strong case can be made that intervention in Libya satisfies those jus ad bellum criteria. I can appreciate the view espoused by many that this is a just option.
Some go even further, arguing that this is not merely an option, but an obligation. I think that goes too far in the case of the United States, although it’s more persuasive in the case of France, which had already taken the step of recognizing the rebel council in Benghazi as the official government of Libya. I haven’t seen this addressed much elsewhere, but it seems to me that puts the matter into a different category for France than it is in for those nations, like the U.S., that did not officially recognize the new government. (It may be that France was over-hasty in declaring this rebellious bunch the new, legitimate authority in Libya, but I’m not really in a position to say, since I’m an American and if France hadn’t previously hastily recognized the rebellious council in Philadelphia that wouldn’t be the case.)
So I’ll concede that a serious argument can be made that this intervention is justified if we allow for a stark distinction and separation between that question and the question of its just conduct. But I can’t also concede that we should — or can — allow for such a stark separation.
The United Nations resolution authorizing — and, actually, requiring — this intervention calls for a no-fly zone in Libya. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to clarify beforehand what this means: that it would require waging war against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in Libya. Establishing a no-fly zone means conquering another nation’s air space and that, in turn, means conquering any forces on the ground that could threaten that air space. It means bombs and missiles — lots and lots of bombs and missiles. And that means death — lots and lots of death.
International approval and support for establishing this no-fly zone — the basis for the claim that this intervention is based on legitimate authority — was, I think, premised on a pervasive misperception of modern military air power. That misperception always leads to a backlash when the reality of such power is witnessed, yet even then the misperception is not corrected, but rather is further misperceived as evidence of deliberate malice.
It’s probably wrong to try to trace this misperception to a single time and event, but I think one watershed moment came during a press briefing in the first Gulf War, when Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf stood before the cameras and before the world and showed a videotape that purported to show a laser-guided American bomb dropping into a chimney, destroying its military target and only its military target. It was a powerful piece of propaganda — one that may have helped to save lives at the time by helping to spur the mass-surrender of tens of thousands of Iraqi conscripts. But it wasn’t an accurate representation, and it fostered a warped expectation that haunts us still.
That misperception encouraged by “Stormin’ Norman’s” video continues to shape decisions and reactions not just among America’s enemies and allies, but in Congress, in the broader public and even within the military itself. This has led to magical thinking — the belief that America’s awesome military might is capable of a surgical precision that is almost never really an option.
Our paper ran a local reax story when the intervention in Libya began. It quoted one resident, a reserve officer in the Army, as saying, “U.S. involvement is critical because we’re probably the only country with the capability of launching a cruise missile from 1,500 miles away and hitting a target the size of a refrigerator.”
And we can do that, sort of — provided we know exactly where that refrigerator is, that our intelligence and our maps are 100-percent accurate and trustworthy, that we can be 100-percent certain that the refrigerator is the right refrigerator, that it does not move between the moment we pinpoint its location with 100-percent accuracy and the time it takes that intelligence to travel the 1,500 miles back to the launch site, and that nothing stands between our launch site and the refrigerator, or moves or steps in between them.
But even then, even given those nearly nonexistent ideal conditions, there’s still this: The explosion caused by a cruise missile is much bigger than the size of a refrigerator. Bombs explode and explosions are never laser-precise. Blasts blast. It’s what they do — battering bodies and buildings that fall on top of other bodies as they expand outwards in a messy, uncontrollable, imprecise wave of destruction.
Air power is never wholly discriminate. When we pretend that it is otherwise — when we delude ourselves and others into thinking that air power is precise, surgical and under control — we create a whole host of problems. One such problem is that we wind up killing innocent people because we’ve convinced ourselves that our precise, surgical bombs could never hit the wrong people and that it’s perfectly safe to use them in cities or other areas packed with noncombatants. And the utterly predictable, utterly inevitable outcome of that use of air power — the death of noncombatants — winds up creating a huge backlash because we have oversold the precision of this weaponry. We have convinced others — and ourselves — that collateral damage isn’t a possibility when the truth is that it is unavoidable. So when it occurs, as it will, it appears we intended it to happen.
Bombs and missiles can be used in ways that minimize and reduce their indiscriminate damage, but their use almost never allows us to guarantee with certainty that we are discriminating between legitimate and illegitimate targets, between permissible and impermissible targets, between combatants and noncombatants. That doesn’t preclude any otherwise justifiable military action that might include — or rely on — air power and bombs and missiles. The category of “collateral damage” has often been appealed to as cynical cover for indiscriminate war, but the category, the distinction, is itself legitimate and necessary.
What is not legitimate — and what remains a huge problem for any actual or potential American military action — is the magical thinking about air power that leads international observers and even American military leaders to imagine that it can be used with impossible precision as a clean, neat, surgical instrument of perfectly discriminate war.
Anyway, following are some of the arguments for and against the wisdom and justness of the current intervention in Libya.
First, here’s Marc Lynch, professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, responding to Terry Gross’ question about “the pros and cons” of intervention in Libya:
Well, the cons are enormous because, you know, anyone who’s lived through the last 10 years and lived through Iraq can understand all the reasons why we want to be very wary about intervening in another Arab country without a great deal of thought about what kind of role we might have to play in a post-war Libya or post-war Iraq and really having to worry about all the unintended consequences of something which seemed like a good idea going in.
And I think that I, like many of us, look around, and we see that a lot of these questions don’t seem to have been answered or even asked.
On the other side, I spent a lot of time reading Arab blogs, talking to Arabs, watching Arab media, and I can see how important Libya really is to what’s happening inside the Arab world right now.
And you can see that there is this incredible momentum towards change, where the hopes of everybody in the region were being raised, and then when you got to Gadhafi beginning to respond with really brutal violence, it had an effect across the entire region.
And they did look to the United States and to the international community to rescue something which was going badly wrong. And so I think what you have is a real gamble where we see that an intervention is in many ways the moral thing to do, and it could have really positive, region-wide effects. But if it goes wrong, it could actually bring all of this to a crashing halt.
Here is Michael Walzer, with whom I am always reluctant to disagree, arguing against this intervention. Walzer acknowledges the unspoken presence in all such debates over the past 17 years, the matter of Rwanda and the unforgivable international failure to intervene there. Libya, Walzer says, is not Rwanda:
None of this would matter if this were a humanitarian intervention to stop a massacre. But that is not what is happening in Libya today. There would have been a cruel repression after a Gadhafi victory, and it would have been necessary to help rebels and dissidents escape and to make sure that they had a place to go. Watching the repression wouldn’t be easy (though we seem to be having no difficulty doing that in Bahrain and Yemen). But the overthrow of tyrants and the establishment of democracy have to be local work, and in this case, sadly, the locals couldn’t do it. Foreigners can provide all sorts of help—moral, political, diplomatic, and even material. Maybe neighbors, who share ethnicity and religion with the Libyan people, could do more. But a military attack of the sort now in progress is defensible only in the most extreme cases. Rwanda and Darfur, where we didn’t intervene, would have qualified. Libya doesn’t.
Conor Foley responds to Walzer at Crooked Timber, and he too makes some credible points, concluding:
On balance I am in favour of the current intervention in Libya. As I said in my previous post, I think that the UN resolution authorizing it puts the protection of civilians at the centre of its mandate and sends a clear signal to governments of the world that they cannot massacre their own people with impunity.
I do not know what the end game is. I accept that the campaign will result in people being killed by allied airstrikes and I presume that the intervening governments have selfish as well as altruistic motives for their actions. However, I think that the situation in Libya immediately prior to the intervention passed the threshold test that I set out above. I think that the UN is fulfilling its responsibility to protect the lives of civilians in this case.
That’s a much more qualified and nuanced endorsement than that James Kirchick offers in World Affairs. I’m suspicious of his over-eager tone — there’s a whiff here of the thrill-seeking that Chris Hedges diagnosed so well in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Kirchick undermines his case by taking pot-shots at strawmen “liberals” in contrast to whom he imagines he will appear tough — but he does offer a serious argument that this may be more like Rwanda (or Bosnia) than Walzer allows:
The guiding principle of American foreign policy should be to support freedom overseas, when we can, where we can, and however we can. There are no firm rules by which this principle can be implemented. Libya, however, presented a rather obvious case: a murderous dictator who had the blood of many thousands of innocent people—including American citizens—on his hands, who had fomented instability in his region, and who had for many years been a leading sponsor of international terrorism, was suddenly confronted by a mass domestic insurgency. He reacted violently, in a way that rendered moot whatever economic benefit he was providing to the West. He all but announced his intention to commit genocide against his own people, stating that he would “cleanse Libya house by house,” practically rendering international intervention a legal imperative due to the stipulations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which the United States is a signatory. Furthermore, from a basic practical standpoint, and unlike in Yemen and Bahrain, Libya is located on the periphery of Europe, meaning that continued strife would have resulted in a mass refugee exodus onto the shores of NATO states.
I would note that “however we can” pleads for, and implies, a great deal of qualification.
I came across that argument via Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, who has, in a series of posts, been raising many important questions about this intervention — many of which don’t seem to have been asked, let alone answered. His colleague James Fallows — another person with whom I am always very reluctant to disagree — focuses on just one of those questions, “What Happens Then?“:
After this spectacular first stage of air war, what happens then? If the airstrikes persuade Gadhafi and his forces just to quit, great! But what if they don’t? What happens when a bomb lands in the “wrong” place? As one inevitably will. When Arab League supporters of the effort see emerging “flaws” and “abuses” in its execution? As they will. When the fighting goes on and the casualties mount up and a commitment meant to be “days, not weeks” cannot “decently” be abandoned, after mere days, with so many lives newly at stake? When the French, the Brits, and other allies reach the end of their military resources — or their domestic support — and more of the work naturally shifts to the country with more weapons than the rest of the world combined? …
I hope to be proven wrong in these concerns. I hope the results are swift, decisive, merciful, and liberating, and that they hasten the spread of the Arab Dawn. But I assert that it is much better to be proven wrong in that way, and to have thought too much about “What happens then?” possibilities — than to have thought too little about them, which I fear we have done.