Bombing our way to a better world
There are several important points of disagreement between us, but I’ll begin with the most obvious. Dan says that he’s “not a very good pacifist.” From that point forward, we run into a serious problem wherein we are likely going to simply talk past one another. Whether of the good or not very good variety, pacifism and my post on Libya just aren’t going to work together. Dan is some sort of a pacifist and I’m simply not. So I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think that most of our problems should be solved diplomatically … but I don’t just throw up my hands and say “Shucks!” when diplomacy fails. This isn’t because I think that war is good and that, in the end, everyone comes out a winner. It isn’t because I won’t curse or because I somehow view the world through rose-colored glasses. But I also don’t believe for one second that just because people are killed by war that we should somehow prefer to let people be killed by our insistence on not-war. The choice that Dan seems to desire is between war and peace … but that’s not actually the choice. The choice is between people being killed and people being killed. I don’t want to sugar-coat that at all. In both instances, people die and it’s violent and bloody and awful. But in one instance — when we eschew intervention — the people who generally die violently are those who are attempting (and failing, due to inferior military capabilities) to throw off a tyrant. In those instances, it’s my position that to fall back on pacifism because war is awful amounts to something of a moral failing insofar as it amounts to siding with the tyrant.
The New York Times has a slideshow of amazing pictures today. In addition to scenes of bombed-out civilian and military vehicles, they include a picture of a man standing with his arms spread, shielding a second, clearly-unarmed man. Another man aims an automatic rifle at both of them—though he doesn’t appear to be sure how to hold it. To the side, a fourth man is slowly approaching the man with the gun, holding out his hand in the international gesture for “stop for a minute and think about you’re doing before somebody gets killed.” The caption tells us that man being shieled is “a suspected Qaddafi supporter.”
In another picture, rebels are looting the bodies of dead pro-Qaddafi forces. Qaddafi’s purported use of “African mercenaries” have heightened racially-motivated crime against immigrants or darker-skinned Libyans, including the use of rape as a weapon of intimidation. Early accounts of the rebelion included an anti-Qaddafi general issuing an ultimatum to the citizens of Sirte demanding that they join the rebellion or be crushed. Many of the leaders of the rebellion are defectors of the Qaddafi regime who, in the past, have hardly been the beacons of democracy we wish they were. The situation in Libya doesn’t fit neatly into the Qaddafi bad/rebels good narrative we’d like to believe.
Please don’t interpret any of this as encouraging anybody to take one side or the other in the question of whether or not the Libyan intervention is a good idea. There are some fantastically persuasive arguments on both sides—and I’m straddling this fence so hard it’s starting to chafe. Fortunately, I’m a guy with a low-to-middling traffic blog and I don’t need to make up my mind in a timely fashion. Others don’t have that luxury.
With that said, I want to address two issues that I think Ari’s analysis has missed. First, intervention can, at times, exacerbate a humanitarian situation. Second, even if a military intervention is a lesser-evil than standing by, it is still an evil. By supporting it, we become complicit in the inevitable, albeit unintended, consequences of that intervention. We should remember that.
Military Intervention has Consequences
Ari correctly points out that witnessing violence without intervening is a form of complicity. For those of us who want to call ourselves pacifists, this is a serious challenge. Does our desire for peace include a willingness to use violence to prevent greater violence? Are we utilitarian with our pacifism? Is a pacifism that comes at the expense of actual peace really pacifism? It’s a fair criticism.
But there’s a parallel criticism that Ari is ignoring. Is a “humanitarian intervention” that causes a greater humanitarian crisis than previously existed still humanitarian? Humanitarian arguments were made in support of the 2003 Iraq War. Saddam Hussein had a clearly established genocidal history. By some counts, he was directly responsible for over a million deaths while he was in power. While the 2003 invasion of Iraq put an end to Saddam’s murders, it led to an additional million deaths1. Our military involvement likely made the humanitarian situation worse.
The history of military intervention is checkered. Some inteventions have been reasonably successful. Some have not been. Some places where intervention was contemplated but not done have resolved relatively peacefully. A military intervention—even if it is legitimately done for humanitarian ends—has a significant humanitarian cost. Combatants and civilians alike are killed. Families are displaced. Soldiers on both sides commit atrocities. The aggressors get desperate and become more brutal. (We’ve already seen that in Libya.) The once-victims start seeking revenge on the routed aggressors. (We’ll see that tomorrow.) The families of those killed take up arms and the cycle of violence is exaccerbated.
The Rwandan genocide is probably the most clear-cut example where intervention would likely have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It could likely also have cost tens of thousands of lives. As tough bargains go—that one isn’t too difficult. But the situation in Libya is not the situation in Rwanda. Qaddafi’s attacks were on an armed rebellion. We were extremely worried about what would happen after Qaddafi put down the rebellion. But suggestions that there would have been hundreds of thousands of civilians killed were very premature. The aftermath would certainly have been brutal and terrible—but I am not sure that it would have been more brutal and terrible than what will happen as a direct result of our intervention.
Additionally, a military intervention effectively precludes a non-military solution. Ari suggests that a military intervention could have ended the apartheid government in South Africa faster? But at what cost? Does a military intervention preclude the possibility of non-military solutions? Ari’s initial post suggested military intervention Yemen. Today it looks like key portions of Yemen’s government is joining the opposition.
Ari points out that the Green Revolution in Iran did not succeed. We did nothing. But would he seriously contend that we should have invaded Iran?
Intervention always has a high cost. When we focus too heavily on whether we consider one regime legitimate or not or whether force is theoretically justified in one circumstance or another, we risk losing track of the fact that the only thing certain about violent intervention is violence.
War isn’t glorious or beautiful. But, frankly, this intervention does express our commitment to justice and human rights … just as not intervening would be (again!) a tremendous shirking of our responsibilty to protect those who are being abused by a tyrant. I don’t fault Dan for his position that war is hell, nor do I dispute that claim for an instant. What I dispute, instead, are the ideas that seem to undergird his argument, namely that there can’t ever be a good motive for military intervention and that there are no possible outcomes that can come from intervention other than violent death and destruction.
I don’t actually disagree with anything Ari writes … except that the last sentence should instead conclude there are other possible outcomes to war in addition to violent death and destruction. In war, violent death and destruction is mandatory.
Military action, whether justified or not, is ugly business
The language in my earlier post is significantly coarser than I generally use. This is by design. I think it’s important that we don’t get complacent about defending our own violence. Let’s not burn Libyan youth to death then cloak our actions with decency and propriety. This is not merely an academic issue. Military intervention has real and deadly consequences.
Bombs are no less lethal if they were dropped for a good reason. War is atrocious. If we choose war to prevent a greater atrocity, we have still chosen an atrocity. Bombing Libyans is not a primarily symbolic act. It is an action with real consequences for real people—and want to make sure we’re acutely aware of those consequences when we advocate killing more Libyans. Our consciences bear the consequences of our choices.Those consequences should weigh heavily on us whether or not we believe we made the right choice.
The precise number is unclear and extremely controversial. The estimates depend on methodology. ↩