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The Liberal Way of War

The intervention in Libya is the half-blood child of multilateralism, an intervention driven in part by genuine humanitarian concerns and in part by naked self-interest.

by
Mike McNally

Bio

April 23, 2011 - 12:00 am

The current generation of American liberals loves a good war. In recent years they’ve fought, with varying degrees of success, the War on Poverty, the War on Hunger, and the War on Carbon. So it seemed ironic that when the liberals of the Obama administration launched a campaign in Libya that seemed truly worthy of being called a war, they were reluctant to use the word. But now that disinclination is starting to make sense — because a war is something you generally set out to win.

You can’t blame liberals for appropriating the word “war” to infuse left-wing social and environmental policies with a sense of moral urgency in order to sell them to voters. Try rallying support for a time-limited kinetic operation against poverty. The trouble is that when you engage in the deadly serious business of dropping bombs on an Arab country and taking sides in a civil war — actions replete with dangers and unintended consequences — you need a stronger basis for acting than the insistence that something must be done.

The Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya, driven by the liberal interventionist clique headed by Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice, may be based on good intentions. But it’s underpinned by no consistent principles or coherent foreign policy (why not Syria? Bahrain?), serves no obvious national interest, and seems to have been taken with little thought as to what constitutes success, or what happens a week, a month, a year down the road.

It’s a “war” waged in response to TV news reports from journalists who arrived on the scene ten minutes earlier, and who prefer a simple good-guys-against-bad-guys narrative to a serious analysis of the roots of a conflict, or of the consequences of intervention (this is actually a recognised phenomenon – it’s called the “CNN effect”). It isn’t even a case of What Would Carter Do? It’s WWBD?: What Would Bono Do? It’s Live Aid with bombs. (It’s only fair to note that some prominent conservatives are also afflicted with this mindset.)

This rather simplistic approach to foreign policy is compounded by the Obama administration’s eagerness to distinguish itself from the perceived unilateralism of George W Bush. And so, in order to create the impression of the “international community” acting in concert, the U.S.  has had to ally itself with countries and organizations whose motives are rather less noble, but who lacked the firepower to act on their own.

Soeren Kern has written about how French President Nicolas Sarkozy is showboating on the world stage in a bid to fend off attacks from political rivals to his right and divert attention from economic problems. British Prime Minister David Cameron is similarly beset by economic woes, and the Libyan adventure is serving as a welcome distraction from domestic politics; both countries, and other coalition members, have energy interests in the country. And the thugs and crooks that make up the Arab League were happy to play along, calculating that by shining the spotlight on Gaddafi they could both rid themselves of a regional nuisance and divert attention from the plight of their own peoples; although the moment the bombs started falling they defaulted to “us against the West” mode.

So the intervention in Libya is the half-blood child of multilateralism, an intervention driven in part by genuine humanitarian concerns and in part by naked self-interest. But make no mistake: there could have been no intervention without the Tomahawk missiles and B-2 bombers of the American don’t-call-it-war machine.

With so many disparate interests in play, disagreement over strategy and aims, and so little moral authority or political resolve on the part of those conducting the campaign, it’s not surprising that the situation in Libya is settling into stalemate. More than six weeks after Obama declared that Gaddafi had to go he’s still in place, and still killing civilians. And absent both principles and a plan, and given liberals’ general disdain for the projection of American power overseas, it’s also not surprising that the Obama administration’s commitment is faltering. France and Britain, incapable of finishing the job the U.S.  helped them start, have demanded that both the U.S. and other NATO countries do more – the participation of most coalition members has so far been limited to having their national flag stuck on a map of the Mediterranean during TV news bulletins. Sarkozy and Cameron asked Obama for more U.S. airstrikes, but all they’ve gotten so far is his signature on a joint letter filled with multilateralist boilerplate and the promise of a couple of Predator drones.

Hillary Clinton’s tough line on Libya is said in part to be influenced by her regret over husband Bill’s failure to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide; Power and Rice have also invoked the spectre of Rwanda. Libya isn’t, and was never going to be, another Rwanda; but if the Obama administration wants a more suitable Rwanda analogy, as well as a timely reminder of the contradictions, messy compromises, and long-term problems inherent when the “international community” embroils itself in intractable tribal and ethnic disputes in foreign lands, they only have to look from the north of Africa to the east, to Ivory Coast.

There, the UN, which has been involved in the country since 2003, has just overseen the removal of former President Laurent Gbagbo and the installation in his place of Alassane Ouattara, who was declared the winner of last year’s election. This despite Ouattara’s being suspected of involvement in a failed 2002 coup against Gbagbo, which sparked a civil war that pitted the mainly Christian south of the country against the mostly Muslim north, and which the elections were intended to end; despite the fact that when he was prime minister in the early 1990s Ouattara jailed political opponents, including Gbagbo; and despite the fact that Ouattara’s forces have committed atrocities against civilians.

Yet Ouattara is now hailed as the man to unite and rebuild Ivory Coast, with a stint at the International Monetary Fund apparently enough to establish his democratic and multilateralist bona fides in the eyes of the international community. As in Libya, France is heavily involved; the former colonial power is keen to shore up its business interests in the country, and has provided the firepower that enabled the UN to oust Gbagbo. And the Obama administration has lent its full support to Ouattara, with Clinton optimistically suggesting that his band of murderous thugs must “live up to the ideals and vision articulated by their elected leader.” What could go wrong? The odds are that Ivory Coast won’t be another Rwanda, but with the country divided along religious lines a long-term civil strife akin to that in Sudan is a real possibility.

Meanwhile, what happens in Libya is anyone’s guess, but the one thing we can be sure we won’t be seeing in anything like the near future is a stable, unified, Gaddafi-less country enjoying excellent relations with the West. Right now it would appear that the best outcome the coalition can hope for is a de facto division of the country, with Gaddafi loyalists holding on to Tripoli and the western half of the country (even assuming Gaddafi himself can be persuaded to accept the hospitality of some fellow despot, which latest reports suggest is unlikely) and the motley assortment of rebels, including Islamic extremists of various stripes, holed up in the east. But such an arrangement would require UN or other international forces on the ground to police it, and at the moment few countries are willing to help enforce the no-fly zone, let alone put boots on the ground.

None of the above is to say that the U.S. and its allies should never intervene in national conflicts where civilian lives are at risk; no-one wants to see women and children being shelled. But we should only do so as a last resort, where action can be taken quickly and effectively, without the risk of being drawn into a civil war, and where we know the people we’re helping into power are the good guys (remember all the media excitement about those Tweeters and Facebookers in Cairo? Looks like that might not turn out so well). And we certainly shouldn’t act as a knee-jerk response to upsetting television pictures. If we can take out a Gaddafi or Assad regime with a few well-aimed missiles, and then offer support to factions who won’t lynch Western aid workers, all well and good. And if that sounds like a set of conditions so strict they’ll rarely be fulfilled, maybe that’s no bad thing.

And any such action should be embarked upon with as little regard for the UN and other transnational talking shops as possible. The fact that so many stars have to be aligned before anything can be done makes a mockery of so-called principles such as the “Responsibility to Protect.” If there’s a guiding principle for humanitarian intervention these days, it’s the Responsibility to Protect, as long as Russia and China don’t object and there’s something in it for France. Unfortunately as mentioned above, the Obama administration is compromised in this respect by its rejection of all things Bush, which means fudges and half-measures will be the order of the day until late January 2013 at the earliest.

You would think the U.S. in particular would have learned something from Iraq and Afghanistan; and in those cases it could at least be argued that the national interest was the overriding concern, and not the troubled consciences of Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power. But in Libya the Obama administration is now facing a lose-lose situation, with a choice between getting involved in another lengthy and unpredictable foreign adventure, or walking away and leaving European and Arab states to clear up a mess that it spectacularly helped to create.

If war is hell, even when unavoidable and fought with crystal-clear aims and unshakeable resolve, then war waged by liberals is limbo.

Mike McNally is a journalist based in Bath, England. He posts at PJ Tatler and at his own blog Monkey Tennis, and tweets at @notoserfdom. When he's not writing about politics he writes about Photoshop.
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