Monday, March 28, 2011

"Humanitarian" war in Libya and the "responsibility to protect" (R2P)

We're into Week 2 of the Libya War. This afternoon, the President is making his first major address to the American people on the war, which has yet to be authorized by Congress.

Liberal/progressive antiwar critics have started to develop perspectives on the lessons so far. Digby in this post, Lessons Learned Hullabaloo 03/27/2011, focuses on two major long-range issues that are largely being shunted aside in the discussion of the Libyan War in the American media. One is the fact that the US involvement in the Middle East is largely based on our dependence on oil as an energy source; and that needs to change. The other is that nuclear nonproliferation is a critically important goal that always has to be taken into full account in actions like these; the specific recent history of Libya and nukes means that the effect of the US-British-French war on Libya is to encourage nuclear proliferation.

Obama in his Saturday message, Hillary Clinton in her This Week appearance on Sunday, and presumably Obama again this afternoon are relying heavily on the humanitarian justification for this war. I'm convinced that if the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) is to ever become a reliable and constructive feature of international law, then US foreign policy will have to be reoriented in a major way. More on that below.

Helena Cobban in War and humanitarianism: From Kosovo to Libya? Just World News 03/27/2011 takes a look at the real "humanitarian" situation in Libya. With the "babies in incubators" stories popping up to justify the war in these early days of the intervention, it's important to try to keep real existing conditions in mind as much as we can. She writes:

... So what was the situation in Libya in the run-up to NATO's present war? From early February on there had been civilian street protests in several Libyan cities, some of which were met with force from the army. Then fairly early on, the rebels in Benghazi and I believe other eastern cities managed to bust into armories and pull out and distribute large amounts of weaponry for their own use; and they were also winning defections from numerous members of the government forces. Those armed rebels adopted a pre-revolutionary flag to fight under and started to advance toward Tripoli.

Not surprisingly, during those weeks of mounting civil unrest, many of the foreign migrant workers in the country became increasingly scared until they started to flee the hotspots. There were many reports that black Africans, in particular, were treated very badly by the rebels. But by about March 7 there certainly was a large-scale, existing humanitarian emergency: the flight of the migrant workers who tried to reach and succeeded in reaching the borders with Tunisia and Egypt. Once over the border, their situation remained very dire until those two host governments, with some help from local NGOs and a lot from international aid organizations and foreign governments, were able to provide tents, basic humanitarian supplies, and onward transport to their home countries.

That is what a humanitarian emergency looks like. I have seen no allegations at all that the Libyan government did anything to prevent or block the arrival of the humanitarian supplies that were needed to deal with that flood of refugees.

In addition, however, during the week of March 12, the Libyan government forces started to make rapid advances in the counter-attack they launched against the rebel forces that had been trying to reach Tripoli from the east, and managed to advance quite far toward the east. Libyan tanks and perhaps some planes launched ordnance against rebel-held cities. The rebel leaders and spokespeople expressed understandable concern that if the government forces were able to retake eastern cities like Benghazi or Tobruk, they would undertake mass atrocities against the residents of those cities.

In other words there was a (probably, but not necessarily, well-founded) fear of imminent mass atrocities against the residents of those cities. And it was based on those fears of future atrocities, much more than on any convincing evidence of significantly scaled past atrocities that Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and PM Cameron launched their war.
I was struck by that latter point listening to Clinton on This Week. She was talking about intervening to prevent a potential atrocity.

Rummy's following Clinton on This Week as a guest was a good lesson in the problems of R2P as a justification for war. He was ready to jump on the supposedly-humanitarian war to advocate his usual militaristic menu: regime change, being tough, defending American "prestige," showing decisive command, and generally the importance of demonstrating Our Side's superior supply of testosterone.

Republican warmongers don't need me to make their arguments for them. Lord knows they're good at it, and eager to practice. Plus they have well-funded think tanks that crank this stuff out endlessly. But it's important to see how this works. Any "humanitarian" war can become grounds for Republicans to puff up their chests and demand faster escalation, more bombing, less sissy concern for civilian casualties, more decisiveness, etc., etc.

And if the United States can go to war on the basis of a potential humanitarian crisis in a situation in which the Republican Secretary of Defense for a Democratic Administration can say, as he did on This Week, that it "was not a vital national interest to the United States," then why shouldn't we go to war against the imminent threat to our vital national interests of Saddam Hussein's plywood drones of death, his mobile biological laboratories of unimaginable horror, and his potential intentions to someday think about starting a new nuclear weapons program? Rummy himself made the play on This Week with Iran and Syria. The neoconservatives who dearly wanted a US war on Iraq back in the 1990s were generally supportive of the "humanitarian" war in Kosovo - which I supported myself - knowing that it would make it more plausible for them to go to war with Iraq when one day they got the chance.

Lowering the bar on international intervention is very risky. No actual humanitarian conditions in Libya, today or a week ago, remotely match the horrors created for the people of Iraq by the Iraq War.

Stephen Zunes talks about the risks of "responsibility to protect" in Libya: "R2P" and Humanitarian Intervention Are Concepts Ripe for Exploitation Foreign Policy in Focus 03/26/2011:

In any case, let’s be clear: Even if one can justify the war on Libya on humanitarian grounds, this is probably not why it’s actually being fought. ...

Despite its potential of being abused, the concept of an international "responsibility to protect" is both legally and morally valid in theory. National sovereignty should not provide a tyrant protection to unleash a genocidal campaign against his own people. However, as horrific as the military response by Gaddafi towards civilians in suppressing both armed and nonviolent forms of resistance against his autocratic rule, it would [be] naïve to claim that foreign intervention is prompted by Western leaders’ concern about protecting civilian lives. The United States, Great Britain and France have each allied with governments – such as Guatemala, Indonesia, Colombia, and Zaire – which, in recent decades, have engaged in the slaughter of civilians as bad or worse as had been occurring in Libya. ...

The principal intellectual advocate of the Responsibility to Protect is Gareth Evans, former head of the International Crisis Group, who has also emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of what he referred to as “the overwhelming moral case” for military intervention against Gaddafi. Ironically, as Australian foreign minister, Evans was a major defender of Indonesia’s genocidal war against East Timor, which took the lives of over 200,000 civilians, and repeatedly downplayed and even covered up for Indonesian war crimes.

The stock arguments are easily to articulate: just because the UN doesn't intervene in one (potential!) humanitarian crisis - or two, or five, or a dozen - that doesn't mean we shouldn't engage in any such intervention; we rarely if ever have complete information before making such a decision; just because more prosaic national interests may be at stake doesn't mean that we can't do a "humanitarian" war now and then. Moisés Naím makes just those arguments in ¿Qué tiene que ver Auschwitz con Bengasi? El País 27.03.2011. Zunes makes one of them in his article: "Hypocrisy and double-standards regarding military intervention does not automatically mean that military intervention in this case is necessarily wrong." At the level of logical formulations, they're hard to refute.

It's just that real war involves real killing and potentially far-reaching consequences. And a military intervention capability and a national habit of indulging it can produce wars in Afghanistan and Iraq just as it can "humanitarian" wars in Kosovo and Libya.

The United Nations was born out of the experiences of the First and Second World Wars when it was clear that international aggression had unleashed the most destructive wars the human race had ever seen. International law has been heavily focused on preventing international wars and mitigating the worst practices toward combatants and civilians in wars that do occur. The genocide of Turkey against the Armenians took place in the context of the First World War; the physical annihilation of the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust began with Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan, much less between the US and Russia or Russia and China, would produce human slaughter far, far beyond anything we've seen this year during the Arab revolution now under way. We can't throw all considerations of the dangers of international war and the urgent necessity of nuclear nonproliferation policies out the window lightly. Not even for real existing humanitarian disasters - much less for potential ones.

And we have to look at all this in the context of the real existing war in Libya. Digby puts it well:

I still feel quite strongly that "humanitarianism" is really far down the list of official concerns even as it's being raised as the main motive for our actions. It's a delusion that no populace in a mature nation, much less a military empire, should have --- raining bombs for "good" is a dangerous concept even in the clearest situation.
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