Tag Archives: libya

Something had to be done

Richard Cohen, (allegedly) liberal columnist for the Washington Post, writes a column in favor of the Libyan military intervention.  Unfortunately, he's spent enough time around his right-wing counterparts at that paper to believe that making a rhetorical case against his alleged opponents and their alleged views is sufficient for making an affirmative case for his position.

This is oh so tiresome.  To be clear, however, sometimes making a negative case is sufficient, especially when your view is the presumptive one.  For instance, I'm going to continue believing that the Holocaust happened until the denier positively prove that it didn't.  Debunking the denier in this case is sufficient. 

In the case of military intervention, however, especially lately–thinking of Iraq and Afghanistan–the burden of proof is much much higher.  War of this sort has recently proven very costly for little known benefit.  There exist, in other words, very good reasons in the dialectical atmosphere for not going to war.  If, then, you're going to make a case both for military intervention and against all of those good reasons.  It's not enough, in other words, to make a case against a bunch of real or imagined weak views.

Someone ought to tell Richard Cohen this.  He writes:

We heard some of those same sentiments expressed by opponents of U.S. intervention in Libya. I do not liken the situation there to the imminence of the Holocaust, only the startling willingness of good people to mask their cold indifference with appeals to fiscal prudence or something similar. Commentator after commentator, person after person, told me that the United States had no business interfering in Libya — that it needed an exit strategy or permission from Congress, and that if the United States could not intervene everywhere (Newt Gingrich mentioned Zimbabwe, manufacturing a civil war just for the occasion), then we could not intervene anywhere. This, somehow, gets stated as if were a logical principle — do nothing unless you can do everything.

With the possible exclusion of Newt Gingrich, those unnamed people don't count here–even if they were real.  He continues:

Still, a better question is: How much will it cost to save lives? That, after all, is what this operation is all about — the prospect that Moammar Gaddafi was going to settle the score in the most horrific way imaginable. Based on his record and the clear indication that he is crazy, a bloodbath was in prospect. What should the world have done? Nothing? Squeeze Gaddafi with sanctions, seize his Swiss accounts and padlock his son’s London townhouse? None of these measures would have had immediate impact. Sanctions are a slow-working poison. A bullet was needed.

This shocking indifference to the consequences of doing nothing, or doing something so slowly it was effectively nothing, was suddenly in the air — the so-called realist argument. Sadly, the message was coming from the surprisingly cold heart of liberalism. The Nation magazine, the reliable voice of the American left, put it this way: “Given our massive budget deficits and bloated Pentagon spending, never has there been a better time for America to end its role as global policeman in favor of diplomatic and economic multilateralism.” In other words, we gave at the office.

Arguments — good arguments — can be made in opposition to the Libyan intervention. Maybe it will make things worse. Maybe we’ll get bogged down and have to stay for years. Maybe the rebels are the really bad guys.

On the other hand, lives were clearly at stake and something had to be done. The world could not simply shove its hands in its pockets and stand by as some madman had his way with people in his grip — in spirit, a reprise of the Evian conference. The Libyan intervention established a precedent: There is such a thing as the international community and, as inchoate as it may be, it will insist on certain minimum standards even for dictators: Your people are not yours to kill.   

In light of Cohen's support of the Iraq war ("only a fool or possibly a Frenchman. . . "), he really ought to think twice before writing this sort of crap.  The Nation said a lot more than "we gave at the office."  In fact, in the article he cites (or click here), they make another telling point:

Furthermore, as we should have learned from the Iraq War, the use of military force can have all kinds of unintended consequences. We may be going to war to prevent civilian casualties, but even the most prudent use of air power is incapable of doing that. The likelihood of US or coalition forces killing civilians will only increase if Qaddafi’s troops solidify their hold on Tripoli and other cities; urban warfare is notoriously messy. The UN resolution forbids foreign occupation, so what will we do if Qaddafi hangs on and the conflict settles into a grinding civil war, with all its attendant chaos and bloodshed? Mission creep seems to be an inevitable feature of this kind of intervention.

These are at least worthwhile practical considerations–completely ignored by Cohen in his rush to do something.  Cohen here combines all of the worst traits of the overheated pundit–he makes a negative case when he needs an affirmative one, he invents opponents and gives them stupid arguments, and, when confronted with a live argument, he misrepresents its strength.  

And of course, there's the false dichotomy–something's having to be done doesn't entail you've exhausted your non-military options.  Don't people ever learn?

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.