Libya: More questions than answers

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.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “Does anyone really believe that any of the political powers getting involved in this conflict give a wet fart for the people of Libya? Do you really think they see this as anything other than a desperate, last-ditch effort toward maintaining Western influence in the Middle East”
    Actually, I think they *do* care about the people of Libya. It may a determining concern in itself, or even a particularly major concern. (But at least, they need to *pretend* it’s a concern…) And they probably see it as a somewhat reasonable method of gaining influence in the Middle East.

    “But since his audience is not entirely Christian, I’ll just go ahead and point out that just war theory isn’t *logical*, either. All wars subsume people’s rights to the interests of the political classes that control the warring states. That is the opposite of justice.”
    All forms of government subsume people’s rights. And for reference, Anarchism is transhumanism in a clown suit, to put it nicely.

    “No, I’m aware of that. I just reject the idea that choosing the lesser of two evils is ever excusable. I am not a consequentialist.”
    Then you’re a fool, and a hypocrite. You are causing trouble for others elsewhere in the world. The computer you are using consumes electricity that could be used for more worthy causes.

    “If I could save a thousand innocent lives by murdering one, I would not do it.”
    Perhaps… but what if one was going to kill a thousand others, and you could stop that one by killing him/her? Would you still not do it?

    “Which leaves the question of the justice of war. As you say, it is doubtful that any war has ever been fought justly.”
    I hope you’re Aryan. And a sufficiently obedient member of the communist party. And not in the way…

    “If you are going to grant them that, you may as well grant them the whole thing based on that horrible ticking time-bomb hypothetical they all love to use.”
    The ticking bomb is stupid for entirely unrelated reasons. If you could find the bomb by, say… using telepathy, though? (Hey, it’s only slightly less likely)

    “And you plus a thousand people, working together, can stop that one person without having to kill them.”
    Theoretically. Of course, that would mean more of the thousand people die. Is it really beter to let a dozen people get machine gunned to death rushing instead of just shooting the perpertrator? Or what if the situation is that the one is about to detonate a bomb, and only you can prevent it, by acting now?
    (Also, note that the question doesn’t actually say the one is going to cause the other deaths. In which case I’d be a bit more opposed.

    “Namely, it would forbid the use of violence against the non-violent, no matter what is meant to be accomplished by it.”
    Because Ghaddafi’s army is so peaceful.

    “A better ethical maxim would be a prohibition against initiatory force, by anyone, against anyone, under any circumstances. With that, we know what is wrong (aggression) and what is right (non-aggression); we know who, in any given circumstance, is to be denounced, and who defended – the aggressor and the victim, respectively.”
    Well… this isn’t that bad. But is it necessarily wrong for one group to act against aggression perpetrated against one group? Or is this under the theory that you should never even fight back? In which case, ‘good’ people will shortly be extinct.

    “The ability to look on torture as an issue of “truth and falsehood” is a luxury of someone who isn’t ever actively threatened with torture.”
    Being able to look at things neutrally isn’t necessarily a bad thing… but yeah.

    If someone said “I oppose curing gay people, not because stripping someone coercively of their identity is wrong, but because it doesn’t work” everyone would immediately recognize the unseen clause: “But if it works, I’m totally switching to the pro-cure side! Yeah!”
    There is nothing morally wrong with being gay.

    Just like people who would be willing to throw me in Guantanamo as soon as some study pops up saying “We’ve found a way to make Muslims squeal like a pig, news at 11″
    Exactly what benefit would anyone gain from that?

    “I would, however, be all in favour of voluntary ‘treatment’ for any sexual orientation or fetish because there’s nothing innately wrong with changing that, it’s only forcing people to change it against their will (or, in voluntary cases, the fact that it doesn’t work) that makes it wrong.”
    Hmm… what about involuntary treatment for, say… pedophilia. Just out of curiosity.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Correction: May *not* be a determining concern in itself.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm… what about involuntary treatment for, say… pedophilia. Just out of curiosity.

    I…don’t know. It evokes all the horrors of past and present “gay therapy”, but paedophilia is also something that’s potentially quite harmful. But then not all paedophiles in any way hurt children…

    I think that, for now, my stance would be a tentative yes, depending on side-effects of the treatment and how effective it is.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s helpful to berate yourself for it, either.

    You’ve been traumatized, and your reaction is an entirely common one to trauma.

    That said, I don’t think we’re going to make a lot more progress on this thread. You are hearing me and other people endorsing (under some utterly implausible circumstances) an activity that you can’t conceive of it ever being OK for anyone to endorse (under any circumstances, however implausible), and I don’t think we’re going to find a point of contact across that gulf today.

    Perhaps it’s enough for now to accept intellectually that, while our position isn’t one you can accept, you can nevertheless believe we aren’t monsters or fools to hold it?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    >>I am not a consequentialist.
    > Then you’re a fool, and a hypocrite.

    I have to admit, you’re now making me regret having identified as a preference utilitarian on this thread.

    > what about involuntary treatment for, say… pedophilia. Just out of curiosity.

    I’d really be curious about the specifics… that is, what causes this person to refuse the treatment? But yeah, I can imagine endorsing involuntary treatment for pedophilia.

  • Anonymous

    Anarchism is transhumanism in a clown suit, to put it nicely.

    LOL. Thread over. You win.

  • Ursula L

    The thing with torture, is that it isn’t an either/or between whether its wrong or whether its work. Rather, it’s a three point process:

    1. Torture is evil, and using it makes you an evil person who needs to be stopped, and any claims that you’re using torture for good are invalid,
    2. AND torture doesn’t work to gain accurate and useful information, because you’ve no way of knowing whether the person you’re torturing is telling the truth or telling you what you want to hear
    3. AND the hypotheticals about “what if torture would get you useful information in this or that horrible situation” are stupid and unrealistic and playing along with such hypotheticals merely distracts from finding real-world solutions that are both moral and work.

    It’s the same with killing one person to save a thousand. If you’ve got good, reliable and accurate information that killing that one person will save a thousand, then you’ve got enough information to organize people to stop that one person without killing them. If you don’t have information good enough to convince others to help you stop this person in a humane way, then you don’t have convincing information, and you need to rethink your assumption that this single murder would actually help you save a thousand lives. And the various hypotheticals intended to get people to think about deciding about whether they’d kill one to save a thousand either ignore these points or introduce so many unrealistic variables to get around these points that wrecking your brain over what you’d do in that hypothetical situation is a waste of time, and you’re better off thinking about how you’d persuade and organize people to solve the problem in a sensible way.

    There are times when hypothetical questions are useful and interesting. But when it comes to moral dilemmas, the most important thing is to remember that reality and morality have to work together.

    Tidy hypotheticals can be used as a distraction in a debate. Someone who wants to torture can easily imagine hypothetical situations where torture might theoretically be useful, if it worked the way they imagined instead of working on human beings who are real people and who can as easily lie to stop pain as tell the truth. Someone who wants to excuse murder can come up with hypotheticals where being a lone, heroic murderer seems the right thing, if you ignore the nature of how life really works.

    But there is no reason for sensible people to play along with these sorts of games. Particularly when it comes to consideration of real-world policy and what to do in life-or-death real-world situations.

    Omelas is another unrealistic and distracting hypothetical, like the ticking time-bomb for torture or killing one to save a thousand. People don’t work that way! If you find yourself in Omelas, the thing to do is not to stay or leave or destroy the system, but to study what is going on, because whatever it is, knowing one child is being tortured does not make people behave well. So figure out what is really going on, and share that information, and stop the child’s misery. It’s one more example of “if you think you have to do wrong for the greater good, you don’t have enough information.”

    Give Hitler that commission to travel the world and paint landscapes in 1908. Spare him the horror of the trenches in WWI and the misery of being rejected by the great art schools, and give him the chance to do something constructive that he enjoys, distracting him from his worse side. The world can handle having a few more pretty but unexceptional landscape paintings. Don’t think that the only option for stopping evil is to do evil yourself.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    My own experience of the story of Omelas is that reading it and thinking about it forced me at a relatively young age to face the question of whether I’m (hypothetically) willing to accept the benefits of a society built on inequality and the suffering of others.

    Which led me pretty ineluctably to the realization that I am accepting the benefits of a society built on inequality and the suffering of others. And so is pretty much everyone else I know.

    And while realizing that doesn’t somehow make it all better, it nevertheless seems to me that realizing it is better than failing to realize it.

    So I don’t agree that Omelas is an unrealistic hypothetical that merely distracts people from the important questions, or that the best thing to do when faced with the story of Omelas is simply dismiss the child’s treatment as evil and not think about it further.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “Which led me pretty ineluctably to the realization that I am accepting the benefits of a society built on inequality and the suffering of others. And so is pretty much everyone else I know.”
    Well… actually, this ties into what Ursula said pretty well. ‘Inequality’ could be argued (in a ‘drive to succeed sense’), but society *isn’t* built on the suffering of others. It’s just that our society happens to include inequality and the suffering of others. These are bad things. They make it less rich (in multiple senses), not more. The child’s suffering has no meaning. You don’t *have* to choose between its misery or your own.

    Conversely…

    “It’s the same with killing one person to save a thousand. If you’ve got good, reliable and accurate information that killing that one person will save a thousand, then you’ve got enough information to organize people to stop that one person without killing them. If you don’t have information good enough to convince others to help you stop this person in a humane way, then you don’t have convincing information, and you need to rethink your assumption that this single murder would actually help you save a thousand lives.”
    Are you arguing that in *any* situation, you can *only* use nonlethal force? That’s not always a trivial thing to do. Yes, it’s better to take a third option, and in this sense, all ethical scenarios are invalid… but these questions are about generalities, not specific situations…

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    I feel like I’m completely missing your point, so I’m going to take a step back and try to clarify my own, so we can more clearly identify where the divergence is.

    It seems pretty clear to me that if tomorrow my society were altered such that it wasn’t causing significant numbers of people in it to suffer, it would be unrecognizable. In that world, pretty much any institution I am familiar with would not continue to exist in any form I am familiar with.

    Do you disagree with that? If so, can you mention a few existing institutions you think would be mostly unaltered by that change?

    Assuming we agree so far… I infer from this that, insofar as I benefit from those institutions in their current form, I am receiving benefits from the suffering they depend on, and am therefore complicit in that suffering. I’m not endorsing that, but I am acknowledging it.

    I’m also not asserting that I receive net benefits … which might be where the confusion comes from. By way of analogy: if I work for Evil Inc and make $10 an hour, then I’m benefiting from (and helping to sustain) evil. This is true even if Good Inc. opens an office down the block would pay me $20/hour for the same work.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    “I feel like I’m completely missing your point, so I’m going to take a step back and try to clarify my own, so we can more clearly identify where the divergence is.

    It seems pretty clear to me that if tomorrow my society were altered such that it wasn’t causing significant numbers of people in it to suffer, it would be unrecognizable. In that world, pretty much any institution I am familiar with would not continue to exist in any form I am familiar with.”
    Hmm… well, I suppose it depends on exactly how you define ‘suffering’. Is just having bad things happen suffering? Recieving less than you otherwise might? What about hardship you volunteer for? If we’re just talking about suffering brought on by the state of society; I don’t know about zero, but it could be significantly reduced while leaving the basic institutions intact. Not unchanged, but not utterly unimaginable.

    “Do you disagree with that? If so, can you mention a few existing institutions you think would be mostly unaltered by that change?”
    Depends on what you mean by ‘mostly unaltered’. If you mean ‘minor cosmetic changes only’, then… well, maybe the Fire Department? But a lot of institutions have severe problems, but they’re not inherent in the system. An ‘optimized’ society could still have the basic structure of a republic, for instance – albeit with considerable systemic changes (a more educated/attentive electorate, term limits (probably), something to deal with bribery. Its industries would have to pay a fair wage, but they’d still be industries… etc, etc.
    Yes, I don’t exactly know *how* to achieve all these things, but it’s not ‘Post-Scarcity Hivemind/Weirdness/Technocracy/Etc or nothing’ either.

    “Assuming we agree so far… I infer from this that, insofar as I benefit from those institutions in their current form, I am receiving benefits from the suffering they depend on, and am therefore complicit in that suffering. I’m not endorsing that, but I am acknowledging it.

    I’m also not asserting that I receive net benefits … which might be where the confusion comes from. By way of analogy: if I work for Evil Inc and make $10 an hour, then I’m benefiting from (and helping to sustain) evil. This is true even if Good Inc. opens an office down the block would pay me $20/hour for the same work.”
    Yeah, this is probably the source of the confusion. In Omelas, the city is literally fueled by suffering: there is a direct correlation between other’s suffering and your happiness. This, I would say, is not the case. Modern institutions may cause suffering, but this is side-effect, not the source of their power. In other words, you don’t *have* to choose between the happiness of others and your own. You can have both.

    Now… actually *doing* it is another thing, and… apparently something we have trouble with. But civilization is not inherently a zero sum game.


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