Bombs for Human Rights
I would like to preface this post by mentioning how much I enjoy Ari Kohen’s writing on human rights. If you do not already follow his blog, I would encourage you to do so. He is writing is eloquent and informed. Even in the areas where we disagree, I have learned a lot from his perspective. When—as I am about to do—I take exception to something he has written, please read it in light of that profound respect.1 And if I drop a few f-bombs, I only do so to encourage a robust and honest dialogue.2
As I have mentioned before, I am not a very good pacifist. I’ve serious reservations about intervention in Libya—but when I hear about French fighter jets patrolling the sky above Benghazi and more planes arriving in the region from all around the world, I feel a certain deep joy. The world is pulling together to stand up against tyranny. For once, we’re using our military to do something right. This is the good war.
Except … war is never good. It may be necessary. I may be a lesser evil. But good? Don’t believe it. Ari writes an elegant defense of bombing Libya for human rights. He may be right. I might even agree with him. But the bullshit-to-candor ratio is way off—so I thought I would offer Ari’s post interspersed with some thoughts of my own. He writes:
I have to wonder: if there was ever a justification for intervention, wouldn’t it have to be the violent suppression of pro-democracy forces by an authoritarian dictator who unequivocally states that he is hell-bent on retaining power by any means necessary?
That’s a pretty broad criterion. It could justify military intervention in Iran, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Venezuela, Cuba, and possibly somewhere like China. It was already used to justify interventions in Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Afghanistan. It also could have justified a military intervention in Egypt or Tunisia prior to the resignation of the respective leaders. Of course, Libya’s the place we’re invading … because we can get away with it. It’s strategically important.3 And fuck Qaddafi.
Qaddafi is bad. The rebels are a mixed bunch. Some are everything we’d want in a popular rebellion, yearning for freedom. Some are more the thuggish-defected-military-turned-would-be-warlord types. Some are Islamists bent on a theocracy. Some may be monarchists. Who will come to power in the end? Calling the rebels uniformly “pro-democracy” is premature. They are anti-Qaddafi. Or, to it positively, pro-freedom from Qaddafi.
We’ll likely arm the rebels—if we’re not doing it already. What channels will those arms go through? Whose hands will they end up in? After Qaddafi is defeated, where will they be pointed next?
If the international community — and the United States in particular — were to remain on the sidelines while the Libyan government cracked down on people who were demanded their basic human rights, it’s difficult to imagine that we could continue to put any stock in the notion of intervention on behalf of so-called universal human rights. Because, of course, to remain on the sidelines in such a case as this one would be to admit, in effect, that human rights are particular rather than universal, and that — quite clearly — they belong to Westerners and not to people in the Middle East (no matter how much those people might be taken by the idea of those rights).
There’s an adjective missing before “intervention”. Because we’d already intervened in Libya. The economic sanctions were going to make Qaddafi’s grasp on power unsustainable. Our pressure on Mubarak or our efforts with Egypt’s military may not have been the force that carried the day—but it certainly helped. We’ve intervened. The real question is whether we should start killing people in the name of human rights. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t—but I want to make sure we’re being honest with ourselves. We can plead necessity or duress—but let’s not pretend we’re not doing what we’re about to do.
To intervene, on the other hand, is to state the opposite, especially when the intervention occurs in the context of the violent repression of pro-democratic sentiment; it is to say, in a loud and clear voice, that the international community affirms these universal rights and that countries like the United States — which has always claimed to be a model for others when it comes to human rights and the rule of law — will defend the rights of the people against an illegitimate government that seeks to repress and murder them. If the people were not interested in our intervention, if they were not entrenched in a battle to oust a brutal dictatorial regime, then I would have no argument; it would be clear that our intervention likely served some interest of ours and had little to do with them.
Fuck that. Could you try saying that again? That loud and clear voice is getting lost amidst the noise of all the bombing. Bombing Qaddafi’s artillery position sends a message to the world … provided the guy operating it doesn’t have a family. And provided you hit what you were aiming at. And provided none of the young people given power over other people take advantage of that power Abu Ghraib-style.
It’s a tough moment to criticize a war. A hundred and ten tomahawks just took flight like the fourth of July..4 We haven’t yet seen who they have landed on. We haven’t heard from their mothers, brothers, widows, or children.
But that seems very much not to be the case now with regard to Libya — and I might also add Yemen and Bahrain too. But perhaps we’ll get to those countries shortly. And, if the international community does turn its attention to them, I’ll republish this post rather than shedding any tears for those governments.
If the “international community” isn’t going to turn its attention to Bahrain. We have serious vested interests in keeping Bahrain orderly. It turned its attention to Libya most likely because we assured the correct regional powers that we’d limit our meddling in Bahrain to rhetoric in exchange for support of military intervention in Libya. And Yemen? We’ve already “turned our attention” to Yemen. And by “attention” we both mean “cruise missiles.”
There isn’t a “bad guy” gene. Governments are made of people—and dismantling a despotic regime through force literally means dismembering the people who through loyalty, self-interest, or bad luck ended up on the other side. They too are worth some tears.
Frankly, if we elected to do nothing — to wait and see, to let things play out — we’re still making a choice. And that choice is that the government of Libya should remain unchanged. But then we would have failed to learn the lesson of Rwanda: a government cannot maintain that it is sovereign when it does not speak for its people and when it sets out to harm them. At such a time, it is incumbent upon the international community to stand with the people against an illegitimate regime, rather than to stand on the sidelines and allow that regime to use all of its resources to crush its citizens.
Approximately 800,000 people were killed in the Rwandan genocide. Most were non-combatants. In Libya, the death toll was somewhere around 5,000 before we got involved. It’s not clear what portion of those were civilians, what portion were armed rebels, and what portions were Qaddafi’s forces. Heavy clashes had death tolls numbering well into the … dozens. Without diminishing for a moment the suffering of those who died prior to the intervention, can we imagine for a moment that the death toll will remain in the four digits once we start adding more powerful weapons to the mix? We’re fucking brilliant at killing people. The “military vehicles the French fighter jets are firing at are, presumably, not empty. When the Libyan state TV refers to the allied forces as “the crusader army” it’s not coming out of left field. How long will our intervention, our putrefying heroism, remain welcomed?
This is not Iraq. This is an action with broad and genuine international support. The consequences of inaction would be real, horrific, and very probably worse than the consequences of intervention. If we’re going to intervene—we did it in the right way. We took it through the United Nations. We’ve washed the blood from our hands—or at least wiped it on the rest of the world. There is a clearly defined mandate (even if we’ll probably ignore it). The U.S. is limiting its role to the extent practical. But we should be honest about what is happening and why. This is not about enforcing a no-fly zone to protect civilians It’s not a “no-fight zone”. We’re fighting a war. We’ve decided that Qaddafi will withdraw from Benghazi and be on his best fucking behavior or we’ll come after him in Tripoli. We might do it anyway.
War is not a loud clear voice for justice and human rights. It is not glorious. It is not beautiful. There are no good wars. There are bad wars and worse wars. Let’s hope we’ve chosen the bad over the worse. And let’s not act too smug about it.
Those who have read my blog for a while know that I generally don’t start a post with praise unless I’m about to have some seriously negative things to say. What I mean is, nothing personal, Ari. I just don’t have the stomach for peace-through-high-explosives. ↩
I’m entirely serious. I think it’s important to add some profanity to our rhetoric about war. War is not academic. It is death and blood and shit. It is a violation of that most basic rule: thou shalt not kill. It follows us home. If a dose of profanity gets us to question those tropes of heroism and glory and remember what we’re actually talking about, so be it. (Unfortunately, I’m not terribly good with profanity—and I would invite anybody who’s better with profanity than I am to rip into this Libyan clusterfuck.) ↩
“Strategically important” means “full of oil.” But it also means “between Egypt and Tunisia which would be an awfully convenient place for a successful popular revolution with a serious debt to the West.” ↩
I’ll be honest. I’m writing this half for myself. I’m refreshing the news, lamenting my lack of television access. I want to see what’s happening. I want to see planes in dog fights. I want to see the images of burnt and twisted metal. Just … not burnt and twisted flesh. A very real part of me was thrilled to hear about the military intervention. Part of that was a hope for the future of a free Libya. But much of it was unadulterated bloodlust—or whatever it is that liberals call their bloodlust. ↩