Monday, June 20, 2011

Juan Cole and the complications of "humanitarian" war

Juan Cole was an enthusiastic supporter of the NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war. I wouldn't call his essay Top Ten Mistakes in the Libya War Informed Comment 06/19/2011 so much a rethinking of his position as continuing to think. But it's hard to imagine in reading it that the events of the real existing Libya War have given him a more sober viewpoint on the conflict:

War excites a lot of passions, as it should since it is so serious a matter. But it also excites a lot of black and white thinking, which is bad. Either you are for wholeheartedly or against. Some will take my essay today as a sign that I have become diffident. Not true. As I said, I think the UNSC did the right thing, and that those NATO and Arab League countries that have stepped up to the challenge are acting in accordance with international law, and that, whatever their ultimate motives, the side effect of their intervention has in fact been the salvation of thousands of lives and of a political movement for a freer Libya. But I think we would have all been better off if the emphasis had remained on civilian protection first and foremost, if better coordination with locals had be achieved more quickly, if the US component had comported with the US constitution, and if the Arab League had not lacked the courage of its convictions. If you go back through my previous essays on these subjects, I think you will find that I have been consistent on these emphases. [my emphasis]
The Kosovo War of 1999 created a lot of illusions: that "humanitarian" wars could be quick and effective; the air war could be a magic weapon; that a major intervention could be carefully limited in scope and costs; and, that a democracy could be established by external intervention quickly after the end of hostilities.

That Kosovo success story was a major boost for supporters of "humanitarian" war. In my view of the Kosovo War, it served a vital interest of the NATO countries by limiting the potential of the Balkan conflict spreading beyond the former Yugoslavia, with the real potential of NATO members Greece and Turkey intervening on opposite sides. It has never been that tempting to me to generalize much beyond the particular issues at stake in that conflict.

Which would be my main response to Cole's implied challenge here:

I think the UNSC did the right thing in calling for international intervention here. I can’t understand why the same people who have complained endlessly about the West, or the world, standing by while large numbers of people were killed in the Congo, Rwanda, Darfur, etc., are now cavilling that something practical has been done to stop the crushing of Benghazi et al.
I've always been highly skeptical of the potential for outside military intervention in those conflicts to have achieved constructive results. One of the lessons I took for the postwar experience in Kosovo is that even with the generally highly favorable conditions there for establishing a stable democracy, the presence of NATO troops is required there even today, the actual democratic government established has had severe corruption problems, and the Albanian majority there would up driving out a large portion of the ethnic Serbian minority.

One of Cole's criticisms of NATO's conduct of the Libya War is:

NATO (and this where the Arab League could have helped) has been incredibly slow in developing the ability to coordinate with Free Libya forces, who are the ones who must necessarily assert themselves against Qaddafi's special forces and mercenaries.
Here again, the downsides of the experience in Kosovo illustrate the hazards of bringing a group of rebels to power about whose intentions relatively little is known. NATO held the strange collection of armed rebels known as the Kosovo Liberation Army at arm's length in the Kosovo War. But it was obvious that expelling Serb forces would likely give that motley crew an enhanced role. Stéphanie Maupas writes in her article, "The Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal" in Roy Gutman, et al, eds, Crimes of War 2.0 (2007):

... the first trial of members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) has also taken place, ending in two acquittals and one guilty verdict. At the beginning of March 2005, the Prime Minister of Kosovo and former member of the KLA Ramush Hardinaj was finally indicted by the tribunal's current Cief Prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, despite political pressure against the move. [my emphasis]
Cole also writes as a criticism of NATO's intervention:

NATO put its emphasis on taking out command and control in the capital instead of vigorously protecting civilian cities under attack. The sieges of Misrata and of the Western Mountain regions went on for weeks with very limited NATO intervention. It is incredible that Qaddafi could roll tanks across the open desert and then concertedly shell noncombatants in cities without it being possible to intervene aerially.
This result should actually not be that surprising. The same thing occurred in Kosovo. The mission there actually had a limited immediate goal of protection Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleansing actions of the Serbian army. The Serbian army continued its ethnic cleansing during the air war. Only with the final capitulation of the Serbian regime - in face of a credible threat of NATO intervention with ground troops - was NATO able to stop the ethnic cleansing actions. They were not so successful in restraining the Albanian majority with the Serbians minority, as noted above. Continuing with his argument:

The US should have already recognized the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. What, are we vacillating about whose side we are on?
This rebel force has a poor fighting record so far. Their victory over the Libyan government is by no means inevitable. And they can scarcely be considered at this point to have secure control over even the territories from which they operate. All those are good reasons to show some diplomatic restraint about recognition. We've refused recognition to the Cuban regime for five decades and it's still around. Switching formal diplomatic recognition from the current Libyan regime to a highly dubious group of rebels is unlikely to add much effect clout to Qaddafi's opposition.

Cole also writes:

That the Libyan intervention is legal does not mean that the war has been prosecuted wisely. I urged after the UNSC resolution that it be a limited intervention aiming at protecting civilians from Muammar Qaddafi’s vicious attacks on innocent crowds and reckless endangerment of non-combatants in the tenement buildings being shelled by his tanks and cluster bombs, and from his forces’ relentless rolling of tanks on Free Libya cities. ...

NATO has focused on a ‘shock and awe’ strategy of pounding the capital, Tripoli, especially targetting [sic] the compound of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Shock and awe does not work, and to the extent that it looks like a targeted assassination, it raised questions in critics’ minds about the purpose of the intervention. If command and control is being hit to protect noncombatants from military operations against them, this should be explained more clearly by NATO generals and specifics given.
Cole makes important and legitimate points there. It testifies to his willingness not simply to act as a cheerleader in a war he supports that he is willing to see and articulate those problems.

But what else did he really expect? Honestly. This is how NATO makes war. That's what it's equipped and trained for: bombing the bejeezus out of the Soviet Union that hasn't existed in two decades. And if NATO decides to make a "humanitarian" intervention in Syria or (God forbid!) Iran, they will do it in the same way. And it was no different in the model "humanitarian" war in Kosovo. Anatol Lieven wrote in"Hubris and Nemesis", Andrew Bacevich and Eliot Cohen, eds, War Over Kosovo: Politics and Strategy in a Global Age (2001):

Mogadishu — along with Beirut, Grozny and other battlefields — suggests that the locus of political and military struggle is shifting from the mountains and jungles of the past, into the "urban terrain" of Third World cities — conditions unfavorable to the style of warfare preferred by American or Western European forces. Within those cities, the most dangerous enemy is not the general schooled in the conventions of traditional warfare, but the cunning, charismatic irregular who combines in one person the terrorist, ward politician, clan leader, criminal warlord, and gang boss. To defeat such an adversary requires an intimate knowledge of local conditions, exceptionally difficult for the "imperial police" to acquire. It may also demand commanders who themselves manifest the gang leader's mix of flexibility and utter ruthlessness — not qualities nurtured in the officer corps of the typical Western democracy. In the movie Casablanca, the character played by Humphrey Bogart taunted a German officer, "Major, there are parts of New York I wouldn't advise you to try and invade." In the decades since, New York may have been (partially) pacified, but Western nations contemplating intervention in quarters disordered by civil war, ethnic conflict, or massive violations of human rights would do well to heed Bogart's warning.
The UN Security Council resolution authorized only a no-flight zone. But this was a real act of war. The no-flight zone the US and Britain maintained over Iraq throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century was a continuing combat operation that made a recurrence of the Gulf War of 1991 far more likley.

One can't help but notice that the first in Cole's list of criticisms of NATO's Libya War is the contempt for Constitutional legality shown by the Obama Administration:

President Barack Obama should have gone to Congress for authorization to stay in the Libya war. Not doing so weakened the legitimacy of the war in the US public, and involved his setting aside the legal advice he received from government lawyers. He could have set a precedent for the return to constitutional rule in the US, but tragically declined to take up that opportunity. (I have held this position from the beginning, by the way). But a corollary I am not sure American nationalists will accept is that even if Congress authorizes a war, in the absence of an attack on the US, that would be illegal in international law unless the UNSC signed off on it. That is what did not happen with regard to Iraq. Those criticizing Obama now often did not criticize W., and often still do not, for a much more important legal violation.
I'm sure the recent revelation that the Cheney-Bush Administration demanded that the CIA conduct a smear campaign against Cole himself re-enforced his awareness of the importance of legal conduct in national security affairs. He blogged about it in Ret'd. CIA Official Alleges Bush White House Used Agency to "Get" Cole 06/16/2011 and in several subsequent posts.

I don't say that as any kind of criticism of Cole's critical post on NATO's war in Libya. Although I imagine that his somewhat defensive parenthesis "I have held this position from the beginning, by the way" reflects some sensitiveness on that point. What the Bushies wanted to do to Cole is a disgrace. Cole has been consistently critical of the many abuses of law and human rights that came along with the post-9/11 incarnation of the national security state. The revelation about the Cheney Administration targeting him that way should be a strong reminder not only to him but to all of us that the kind of national security and permanent war state we have in incompatible with the maintenance of a Constitutional democracy. And in reality, important parts of the Constitutional order - including Congressional war powers - have already been sacrificed to it.

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