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The Liberal Way of War

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.