James C. Banks

In Libya, We Need to Know “What Is the Cost?”

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm

All of the supporters of our war in Libya have one thing in common: They dismiss or fail to consider altogether what the implications of interfering in a tribal society might mean.  Here’s Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

It has been exceptionally rare for major powers to intervene militarily for predominantly humanitarian reasons. One rare example was the United States-led Kosovo campaign in 1999, and another was Britain’s dispatch of troops to Sierra Leone in 2000 to end the brutal civil war there. Both were successes, but came only after years of killings that gradually built up the political will to do something.

Here is Senator Rubio:

As long as Qaddafi remains in power, he will be in a position to terrorize his own people and potentially the rest of the world. In fact he has vowed to turn rebel strongholds into “rivers of blood.” If he succeeds, it will provide a blueprint to repressive regimes across the Middle East in the use of force against unarmed civilians. And unlike the conflicts in other nations in the region, the rebels in Libya have requested and welcome our support.

Though Kristof is the only one who uses the term “humanitarian,” both are framing their justifications along the lines that the war in Libya is a humanitarian intervention.  This is not necessarily the case.  Our intervention might have protected civilians in Benghazi, but it has also enabled the rebels, when they enter places like Bin Jawad to go “building to building, [and] house to house.” Admittedly, the rebels are probably not as extreme in their sojourns through living rooms and bed chambers as Al-Qaddafi would have been, but there is no evidence that this will hold true for a rebel administration, should it take power in Libya. 

Even if the regime that succeeds Al-Qaddafi is more liberal, this will not necessarily be better for our national interest. The regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia are comparably repressive; the difference is that the Iranian regime wants to export its authoritarianism.  As repressive as Al-Qaddafi is, he has not been much of a threat to freedom outside of Libya since dismantling his nuclear weapons program; with the rebels, we have no idea how formidable a threat they will prove to be.

The Obama administration seems to be aware of this dilemma.  Otherwise, NATO would not have warned rebels that they will carry out airstrikes on any side of the conflict which attacks civilians. In theoretical terms, this humanitarian policy is completely consistent; in practical terms, it is completely crazy.  This claim is not universal, but it is generally true that civilians will be better off the sooner the conflict ends; however, if NATO’s air forces bomb both sides in the conflict, it will only prolong the fighting, tilting the balance first to one side and then to the other.

We can hope for the best in Libya (and I do), but it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine what that best scenario might be. No amount of good intentions will bring back the cost of this conflict if it comes out badly.

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