Cast across the Rubicon

Juan Cole, a guy who knows a lot about the Arab world, makes a case for military intervention in Libya.  This is not particularly surprising, as he also supported the invasion of Iraq.  I don't mean to question his authority by mentioning this, I just want to point out that the issue here is not hypocrisy.  (Had I more energy, I'd do a post on the inevitable tu quoques of the you-didn't/did-support-Iraq-variety–maybe someone else can do that one.).

I do, however, want to express a little annoyance with the way his case gets made.  He writes:

The arguments against international intervention are not trivial, but they all did have the implication that it was all right with the world community if Qaddafi deployed tanks against innocent civilian crowds just exercising their right to peaceful assembly and to petition their government. (It simply is not true that very many of the protesters took up arms early on, though some were later forced into it by Qaddafi’s aggressive military campaign against them. There still are no trained troops to speak of on the rebel side).

To be clear, those might be arguments against international military intervention.  Perhaps more effort could have been made at an international intervention of the non-military variety.  I don't remember anyone claiming that this route had been thoroughly exhausted.  I do remember, in fact, the almost immediate insistence on threats of military force.  Once those threats are made–I think–the die is cast across the Rubicon, especially with dictators such as Qaddafi.  Now if someone has convincing evidence that all diplomatic avenues had been exhausted, I'll withdraw my claim.

My more serious annoyance with Cole's argument is in the way he handles objections to military intervention.  He writes:

Among reasons given by critics for rejecting the intervention are:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)

2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).

3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

Absolute pacifists are rare, and I will just acknowledge them and move on. I personally favor an option for peace in world policy-making, where it should be the default initial position. But the peace option is trumped in my mind by the opportunity to stop a major war crime.

Leftists are not always isolationists. In the US, progressive people actually went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, forming the Lincoln Brigade. That was a foreign intervention. Leftists were happy about Churchill’s and then Roosevelt’s intervention against the Axis. To make ‘anti-imperialism’ trump all other values in a mindless way leads to frankly absurd positions. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am by the fringe left adulation for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the grounds that he is ‘anti-imperialist,’ and with an assumption that he is somehow on the Left. As the pillar of a repressive Theocratic order that puts down workers, he is a man of the far Right, and that he doesn’t like the US and Western Europe doesn’t ennoble him.

The proposition that social problems can never be resolved by military force alone may be true. But there are some problems that can’t be solved unless there is a military intervention first, since its absence would allow the destruction of the progressive forces. Those arguing that “Libyans” should settle the issue themselves are willfully ignoring the overwhelming repressive advantage given Qaddafi by his jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks; the ‘Libyans’ were being crushed inexorably. Such crushing can be effective for decades thereafter. 

These, I would suggest, border on weak men (though there are dirty f***ing hippies who argue for them).  Notice that they're addressed at the very general principle of employing military force.  If Cole is serious about considering objections to military force, he might consider something along these lines:

Humanitarian military intervention is sometimes justified, sometimes not.  It's justified when (1) there is a clear, achievable objective; (2) this objective cannot be achieved but by military force; (3) the chances of success are great.  An argument could be made that none of these conditions have been satisfied.

I don't know if this argument could ultimately prevail, but it's disappointing that Cole doesn't seem to think anyone capable of making it.  This is how he closes:

I would like to urge the Left to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time. It is possible to reason our way through, on a case-by-case basis, to an ethical progressive position that supports the ordinary folk in their travails in places like Libya. If we just don’t care if the people of Benghazi are subjected to murder and repression on a vast scale, we aren’t people of the Left. We should avoid making ‘foreign intervention’ an absolute taboo the way the Right makes abortion an absolute taboo if doing so makes us heartless (inflexible a priori positions often lead to heartlessness).

Thus my "weak man" allegation–the "left" is too mentally incompetent, unsophisticated, or ideologically rigid to participate in this discussion.  Contra Cole,  I think people can do this, they can see the limits of principle, they just might not, in this case, see that the basic just war conditions have been satisfied.  Whatever the case may ultimately be, knocking down unserious positions or suggesting that it's either intervene militarily or endorse the slaughter (where have I heard that before) don't make good arguments.


One thought on “Cast across the Rubicon”

Comments are closed.