The backlash to the Libyan intervention has begun, and to be sure, it is a controversial mess. My own support was lukewarm; like the president, I felt my hand was forced by the likelihood that Qaddafi would butcher thousands of people had he taken Benghazi two weeks ago. I feel like the president gave a good-enough rationale for the intervention, and western governments are trying hard to avoid getting pulled into an Iraq-style nation-building mess. I realize that ‘good-enough’ feels like an awful cop-out when it comes to war, but the world is pretty d— messy, and the acrimony of the debate tells me that no one really knows what we should do (let’s all at least admit that). Applying Clausewitzian-Powell Doctrine benchmarks – overwhelming force for a quick victory and a quick, clear exit – fits poorly on the emerging tangle of developing world crises where the issue is not a huge, militarized threat to western security (the Nazis or USSR), but a mix of mass humanitarian slaughter (Rwanda), terrorism (Afghanistan), piracy (Somalia), ethnic cleansing (Balkans), criminal takeovers (parts of Mexico and Columbia), etc. The problem, as Kaplan notes, is the semi-anarchic level of governance in much of the developing world, a problem Barnett tagged years ago as the ‘integrating the gap.’ As I argued last week, imposing Clausewitzian standards on intervention in such conflicts means that we will, then, almost never intervene – as we did not in Rwanda or Darfur.
This strikes me as an analytically clear benchmark for US intervention or not; often tagged as ‘realism,’ it is best associated in international relations theory with Walt and Layne. The problem is that, as critics of realism have argued since Mencian criticisms of Sun Tzu more than two millennia ago, it feels so very cold and heartless. Realists have fought this charge for years. In the end, not intervening in Kosovo, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Libya, etc. means that many people may die (or , in fact, have died), and this pulls on the heartstrings of anyone who thinks that the world should be a less brutal place and that if help is possible, there is a moral case to, if not always intervene, at least debate it and possibly do something. All this is captured in the debate over the responsibility to protect (R2P) that has exploded over the Libyan war.
It seems to me therefore that non-interventionists must defend a position that includes mass butchery as a likely outcome, yet still argue that we should not go in. For obvious reasons, no one really wants to say that in print. In fact the only serious figure I know of to unequivocally state, after the fact, that we still should not have gone into Rwanda, despite all the carnage, is John Bolton. So it strikes me that the current effort to downplay the likelihood of a massacre in Benghazi is driven more by the desire of non-interventionists to avoid the moral posture of having to admit that thousands of bodies, rapes, dead children, torture would nonetheless be ‘ok;’ as Stewart says in the clip on above Bolton, “When someone says would you have stopped the genocide, just say yes, just say yes!” I would still like to hear that case made more vigorously from the non-interventionists; it is analytically required to support the non-interventionist position, and to duck it by disputing the possibility is an analytical and moral dodge.
1. Qaddafi is a known brutal tyrant, with similarly brutal ‘buddies’ like Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), (now deceased) Hafez al Assad (Syria), and Omar el Bashir (Sudan) – all guilty of their own mass slaughters. It seems likely that moving in such circles, which comes at a high price of international respectability, means you don’t care too much about how many of your people will hang. It’s par for the course for these guys. I don’t think anyone disputes the reasonable possibility that Qaddafi would do what his buddy tyrants have also done in similar situations.
2. He and his family went on TV and said they intended a slaughter. His son Saif said there would be ‘rivers of blood in the streets.’ Qaddafi spoke of hunting the rebels ‘like rats, alley by alley.’ The Qaddafis’ various media spokesmen talked in similarly harsh, if less openly explosive ways too. To be sure, they may have been lying. Leaders lie all the time. Non-interventionists argue that this sort of talk was meant to deter other Libyans from joining the rebellion. Perhaps, but the rebellion had already started when Qaddafi started these terrifying ravings. As Pape notes, something like 75% of the country had already risen up against him, so there really wasn’t anyone left to deter. The whole country had already lined up on one side or the other.
Mead calls Qaddafi the ‘Great Loon,’ so maybe he is just too bonkers to know what he is saying. But Post says Qaddafi is more rational than we think. If so, then Gaddafi surely knew that talking like that would attract global attention immediately, and certainly Saif, who lived and was educated extensively in the West (complete with a PhD from the London School of Economics), knew that ‘rivers of blood’ would dramatically raise the likelihood of a western intervention. Despite these obvious ‘audience costs’ in the West (the ‘CNN effect’), they said this stuff anyway. That tells me they meant it.
3. I don’t buy the idea that because Qaddafi forces didn’t engage in mass slaughters in other re-captured cities, that suggests they would not have done so in Benghazi. First, the cities between Tripoli and Beghazi aren’t really ‘cities’ at all. There are only about 6 million people in Libya total, with half of them in just Benghazi and Tripoli. The rest of Libya’s ‘cities’ are more like towns, with Misrata, e.g., having only around 300 k. Further, the civil war has emptied much of the middle coastal strip between Tripoli and Benghazi. Those with rebel sympathies have been moving east for weeks. That means Benghazi is swollen with regime opponents, while the coastal middle towns are emptying. In short, the regime’s greatest opponents are concentrated in Libya’s second city, so the Qaddafi forces’ behavior in small, almost empty places like Brega (15.k) or Ras Lanuf (12.5 k) don’t indicate well what Gaddafi’s behavior in a large, rebel-swollen metropolis like Benghazi would have been.
Second, the towns aren’t really ‘captured.’ The civil war has see-sawed back and forth regularly for weeks now. I recall hearing one CCN reporter saying Ajdabiya has exchanged hand 6 times in as many weeks. The point being, that even as Qaddafi retakes places, his people don’t really have time to ‘hunt them like rats.’ Even mass slaughters take some planning, and his fighters are better needed to keep pushing east. Again, the critical difference would have been the fall of Benghazi. Because that is the ‘capital’ of the resistance, its fall would have likely ended the revolt. Qaddafi would then have the time and political order necessary to begin the re-consolidation of his position. That would be the time to launch his own version of the Hama massacre – after he has won and taken the rebel base.
For another view on why massacre was likley and how that forced action, read this excellent piece.
I may be wrong, and I open to counter-arguments. And of course, we will never know. This is counterfactual reasoning at its most controversial. But the likelihood of a massacre seemed pretty high, at least reasonably high enough to cross the R2P threshold. We stood aside during some truly horrifying atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, and our sense of shame plays a major role in this intervention. Non-interventionists need to address that straight-on, and not duck it by disputing the counterfactual itself. It would take extraordinary (and, honestly, rather disturbing) sang-froid to argue that doing nothing in the midst of butchery is the right thing to do.