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“Cut and run” redux: the Libya war debate

March 29, 2011

I think sincere, well-intentioned people can disagree about how the US should have responded to the situation in Libya, and I’m glad to see a civil discussion happening amongst people who are cautious about the use of US military force (see Juan Cole, Robert Naiman and Phyllis Bennis for a few).

However, just about every conversation about the merits of the Libya intervention surfaces one of my eternal frustrations with these debates. A clear dichotomy is defined: military intervention or nothing. We heard it about Iraq. We’re hearing it about Afghanistan. And it’s in full force in the Libya debate. Time and again, defenders of the war in Libya have cast their opponents as heartless people who advocate inaction in the face of brutal injustice. Professor Asli Bali of UCLA law school summed it up well on Democracy Now:

So, I think the binary choice that we face, which is do nothing or engage in this kind of an extensive use of force with a relatively open-ended authorization through the Security Council, is a false framing. I think that there were alternatives available, both prior to the decision to engage in the ICC referral in the first Security Council resolution and prior to the decision to authorize use of force in the second Security Council resolution, that might have been better alternatives, particularly if the goal is to end the killing of civilians, which I think should be the overwhelming goal of any attempted intervention of any form.

What does it say about our nation’s understanding of foreign policy that people cannot even fathom nonmilitary alternatives? It’s a testament to how little attention and support our diplomatic and development efforts receive. To use an apt and often-applied analogy, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We have starved our civilian agencies and the public, politicians and pundits have little concept of what nonmilitary alternatives are at our disposal.

While the US and its allies initially used nonmilitary measures to pressure the Qaddafi regime, can we honestly say that they exhausted such measures before jumping to military force? The International Crisis Group is just one organization that has put such alternatives on the table:

The alternative option, which Crisis Group has advocated, is to engage in a vigorous political effort to achieve an immediate ceasefire in place to be followed by the prompt opening of a dialogue on the modalities of a transition to a new government that the Libyan people will accept as legitimate. To that end, we urge the Council to delegate a regional contact group composed of officials or respected personalities drawn from Arab and African countries, including Libya’s neighbours, to initiate discussions with the regime and the opposition without delay. Their mandate would be to secure agreement on:
• An immediate ceasefire in place, which respects international humanitarian law;
• Dispatch of a peacekeeping force drawn primarily from the armed forces of regional states to act as a buffer, operating under a Security Council mandate and with the support of the Arab League and African Union;
• Initiation of a dialogue between the regime and opposition aimed at definitively ending the bloodshed and beginning the necessary transition to representative, accountable and legitimate government

Now I can’t guarantee that alternatives such as this would have worked. But it certainly would have been worth exhausting those other options before engaging in a military intervention with no clear end game that could easily lead the US and its allies on the slippery slope to long-term military engagement. If the US debated any of these approaches during the two weeks that advocates within the administration were pushing for a no fly zone, that didn’t make it into the public debate.

If it’s true that the international community does not have the right kind of nonmilitary capacity to intervene to protect civilians when necessary, this raises an important question about what it would take to get there and why they haven’t done so already. We are campaigning within the US for alternatives to war, and the international community also needs a robust set of tools for nonmilitary engagement if we want to protect human rights while avoiding costly and possibly unnecessary military interventions in the future.

UPDATE: The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson takes on this issue in a great blog post on President Obama’s speech last night:

“Much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya,” President Obama said Tuesday night. Maybe; but he proceeded to do something like that, too. The false choice, or choices, Obama presented were between doing exactly what he is doing and “never acting on behalf of what’s right,” and between doing what he is doing and deciding to

broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Qaddafi and usher in a new government.

In the first instance, the suggestion that those with doubts about entering this war—without much of a plan, without real consultation with Congress—were arguing against ever doing anything “on behalf of what is right” is, to say the least, overly broad. Does Obama really think that the only morally steady position is one that endorses the current air campaign—that not agreeing with him means turning “a blind eye to atrocities,” and that anything short of close to two hundred cruise missiles “would have been a betrayal of who we are”? (The answer to that question may be “yes.”)

Obama’s second “false choice,” between his neat and limited war and a broader conflict, has an artificial quality, too. We have already gone beyond stopping an imminent massacre in Benghazi, something Obama didn’t acknowledge. He cannot simply keep invoking what he obviously—and not necessarily wrongly—sees as his moment of moral clarity in order to avoid a serious discussion about what we are doing in Libya now, and where we’re headed. After all, “the task of protecting the Libyan people” could easily be construed as bringing down Qaddafi; for that matter, the phrase is vague enough to encompass a flu vaccination campaign for children in Tripoli. At the moment, it includes air support for a rebel advance toward Sirt.

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