08 March 2011

Libya and the Interventionist Impulse

In beleaguered Libya neocons have finally found people who take inspiration from the invasion of Iraq. Rebels in the country have reportedly implored the United States to "bring Bush," i.e. intervene on their behalf by attacking the Khadafi government. In the U.S., even some opponents of the 2003 invasion like Senator Kerry are said to favor the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya in order to prevent Col. Khadafi from using air power to reassert his authority. The ruler's attempt to suppress an insurrection will inevitably create a "humanitarian crisis" that will be used to justify a "humanitarian intervention." No government, it would seem, has the right to suppress an insurrection if that means killing civilians. Since embedding forces among civilians is a hallmark of asymmetrical warfare, no government anywhere can probably suppress an insurrection without inflicting "collateral damage" casualties among civilians. If we were to apply the implicit principle universally, it would mean that any government's sovereignty is forfeit once an insurrection breaks out, since the international community cannot tolerate collateral damage in its suppression. Some people might agree with this proposition on the assumption that insurrections would not break out unless governments were in the wrong somehow and had violated their people's rights, thus delegitimizing themselves.

150 years ago, the secession of slaveholding states from the United States portended no less of a humanitarian crisis than is likely in Libya, once the Union government resolved to suppress secessionism by force. Needless to say, the Lincoln administration made it known that it would tolerate neither military intervention on the secessionists' behalf nor any diplomatic recognition of the Confederate States of America. Since Lincoln denied the legality of secession, he regarded it as rebellion. Historical consistency requires Americans to agree that foreign countries have no more right to intervene in Libya than they had to intervene in the American Civil War. Neither the fact that the Confederates were the "bad guys" as defenders of slavery nor the fact that Khadafi is self-evidently the "bad guy" in his own country changes the rules. If nations are sovereign, each must have an inalienable right to suppress rebellion until its failure to do so alters the essential facts on the ground. If the world must be divided into nations, none can be the judge of others' sovereignty unless all are willing to submit unconditionally to the same tribunal. If the immorality of some regimes offends you, your job is to work toward a world government that will set and enforce a single standard for relations between governed and government. To choose particular cases for intervention for merely personal or national reasons is nothing but an act of war.

Right now, the President has probably gone too far already in urging Khadafi to step down, but Secretary Gates has exerted a conservative influence on him against the advice of fellow Democrats like Kerry, while the Republicans lack a coherent position on Libya, each leading figure speaking only for himself or herself. Kerry reportedly fears that another Democratic President will look weak during a humanitarian crisis, as President Clinton supposedly did during the Rwandan genocide. Again, the only correct answer to such crises is not arbitrary intervention by individual nations or coalitions, but more effective world government. Anything else is self-interested warmongering, no matter how selfless the motives seem. Libyans are none of our business unless we are also theirs and everyone else's. Let he who is without sin drop the first bomb.

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