Monday, March 28, 2011

Juan Cole's defense of the Libya War to "the Left"

Juan Cole has posted a personal manifesto of sorts, An Open Letter to the Left on Libya Informed Comment 03/27/2011 defending the so-called humanitarian war in Libya. Cole's value in commentary on the Middle East and the Muslim world has been in his depth of knowledge of Islam and of the area and his attention to facts and their meaning in context. And that continues to be so in the Libya War.

But in justifying the Libya War on essentially the same grounds as the Obama Administration, he allows himself to float off into careless abstractions. One is a classic example of a sophomoric argument:

The United Nations Security Council authorization for UN member states to intervene to forestall this massacre thus pitched the question. If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi's destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya's workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people.
The historian Henry Steele Commager used to be fond of quoting James Madison saying that "theory" can lead us astray, so experience should be our guide. As a general position, it's a little to Lockean for my taste. But it applies well to Cole's particular argument. We could just as easily say that because Juan Cole isn't in Los Angeles shooting it out with the Crips and Bloods, he de facto supports violent urban street gangs.

It's true that the UN Security Council action makes the intervention legal in international law. It does not in itself make it a good idea. It does not mean that the United States has to take part in implementing this good idea; France and Britain were both eager to do humanitarian service by shooting down planes and bombing and rocketing military sites. No doubt their bombs and rockets, like our own, carefully distinguish between Bad People and those deserving to live.

In the real world of week before last, what happened was that the United States pushed hard for UN authorization for the war against Libya. It did not push for war against Yemen or Bahrain, where protesters are also being killed by their governments. It did not push for UN Security Council authorization to overthrown the government of Saudi Arabia to end its abuses of human rights. Are we to conclude that this means the Obama Administration therefore approves of the Wahhabi version of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia? Or that it approves of repression and human rights abuses in Yemen and Bahrain? Obviously not. It's a silly, sophomoric argument and I'm surprised to see him using it.

Very relevant in terms of politics in the Middle East and the Muslim world especially - but not only there - is the painfully obvious fact that for decades, the United States has acquiesced in and in many ways actively supported Israel's overt violations of occupation law and their targeting of civilians in their wars, even though US policy officially condemns at least the settlement policy. In this case, the support is not passive in the sophomoric sense of "you don't support international intervention to overthrow the Israeli government so therefore you support everything it does." It is active support and could scarcely be more obvious. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, with Egypt the second largely because of its peace policy toward Israel. Right or wrong, practical or not, this is a real contradiction in US foreign policy with real consequences. It ought to be enough to discourage adults from making the sophomoric argument. But obviously it isn't.

Cole implicitly recognizes that such generalizations as he makes in the sophomore argument are irrelevant. Because he goes on to explain how particular conditions in Libya make its situation different than those in other countries currently involved in the Middle East/North African wave of hopefully-democratic revolution and also different from Darfur. I heard a commentator on Aljazeera English yesterday referring to the rebels fighting in Libya as the "democratic" forces; I hope they are.

He also falls into some careless historical analogies. The Kosovo War is the most relevant recent historical example, though thinking by analogy is tricky, in fact one of the worst problems in American foreign-policy making. The only good news on that score - and one that really amazes me - is that I've yet to hear of anyone invoking "Munich" or warning about the dangers of "appeasement." Nor any comparison of Qaddafi to Hitler. Amazing! Although Cole makes some not-very-useful general comments about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and the Second World War

I'm guessing based on his various comments that Cole is working from a very optimistic set of lessons from the Kosovo War. The more relevant lessons from it would be: air power inhibited the use of ground troops against civilians but didn't prevent it; initial expectations of a quick capitulation by Serbia turned out to be dead wrong; "strategic bombing" of Serbian cities was soon added to the campaign (Chinese Embassy! Oops!); Milošević didn't accede to NATO demands on Kosovo until he thought he would soon face a ground campaign; and, regime change in Belgrade was never part of the war aim.

Helena Cobban also reminds us about the eventual outcome here 12 years later:

Now, it is extremely unclear what the political upshot of all this will be in Libya. In Kosovo, Washington ended up midwifing a tiny, landlocked little statelet that is a hub of organized crime at the heart of the Balkans, and whose people have a very stunted quality of life.
Cole makes this reference early in his piece:

I am unabashedly cheering the liberation movement on, and glad that the UNSC-authorized intervention has saved them from being crushed. I can still remember when I was a teenager how disappointed I was that Soviet tanks were allowed to put down the Prague Spring and extirpate socialism with a human face. Our multilateral world has more spaces in it for successful change and defiance of totalitarianism than did the old bipolar world of the Cold War, where the US and the USSR often deferred to each other’s sphere of influence.
There was no way in the world that the United States in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, was going to blast its way into Eastern Europe and go to war with the Soviet Union over the Warsaw Pact intervention in what was then Czechoslovakia. Nor did it have the power to do so. Even aside from the huge commitment of resources to the Vietnam War, US Cold War military strategy in Europe was defensive, based on repelling a Soviet invasion, and was based on the use of tactical nuclear weapons. It was never part of the military assumption there that US conventional forces would be able without nukes to defeat a Soviet invasion of western Europe. That's a huge part of the reason that the US refused to adopt a no-first-use policy on nukes. It would have been an enormous investment in arms, personnel and defensive military installations to have made a conventional defense (i.e., not using nukes) of western Europe possible against the Red Army.

Cole may have been a kid in 1968. But he's all grown up now. Is he seriously suggesting that the world would be better off today if the US had initiated a war with the Warsaw Pact in 1968 that would have involved nuking East Germany? What the hell kind of humanitarian notion is that? Whatever the motivations, it made no practical sense then, and it's pure fantasy now to suggest that it did.

Cole's comparison of the international legitimacy of the Libya War in comparison to the Iraq War is good. And it has practical relevance, because the international legitimation affects the course of the war and its repercussions for the United States. But again, that fact that it's legal doesn't mean its a good idea. To use a homey example, it's legal to invest your retirement savings in blackjack games in Las Vegas, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Nor does it mean that it's a good idea for the United States at this particular time.

I haven't seen Cole grappling with the very real risks of the Libya War yet. I fully expect him to as they arise. And let's stipulate that something very close to miracles do happen, even in war. Muammar Qaddafi could decide to stop down tomorrow and Libya could establish a democracy modeled on the United States Constitution. I would recommend they be careful of the Supreme Court, though. And that might want to tighten up the Article 1 war powers clauses. Failing that, though, here are some of the problems:

  • Smart as our humanitarian bombs are, they kill people and inevitably kill civilians. The longer the war continues, the more they are likely to kill. (Note to Christian Rightists: our freedom bombs kill unborn babies, too.)
  • According to Steven Metz, whether Qaddafi stays or goes in the short term, "there is no place on earth more likely to experience an insurgency in the next few years than Libya." That's more than a trivial consideration.
  • Republican warmongers, bless their cold little hearts, actually have a point that an intervention like this doesn't make sense if regime change isn't part of the war aim.
  • Who in the name of the Prophet are we supporting in Libya? Call it whatever you like, we're backing one side in a civil war. Who.Are.They? Cole addresses that question this way, "The question is what kind of leadership was emerging in places like Benghazi. The answer is that it was simply the notables of the city." Wouldn't those same notables have been supporting the Qaddafi regime for decades? It's possible they have sterling democratic credentials. But do we the American public have any good reason to think so?
  • Nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation should be the highest strategic priority for United States foreign policy; it's hard to imagine that the Libya intervention - after years of rewarding Qaddafi's regime for going along with US policy on nonproliferation - doesn't significantly set back nuclear nonproliferation. A nuclear weapon is the best insurance against being invaded by the United States, UN authorization or not.
  • I'm convinced that for the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) to ever become a meaningful standard for military intervention, it would have to be done by an independent military force, responsible directly to the UN and not to individual countries. Otherwise, it becomes an excuse to cover for cold power politics.
  • There are also real limits to United States power. That applies to "humanitarian" wars as well as to Cheney wars.
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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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