I spent Sunday away from my computer, hawking subscriptions to Dissent at Left Forum. I had a conversation with a Revolutionary Communist Party member at our table and tried to defend against her charge of America?s ?vicious military aggression against Libya.? And then I arrived home and saw Michael Walzer?s article.
I?m making light. His argument is completely convincing to me. I don?t believe I?d thought entirely clearly about the problems with the intervention until I?d read it, and I?m grateful to benefit from his demystifying words.
What I wonder about, and what he (given the lack of information we have) wisely avoids making a firm argument about, are the intentions of the ?Allies.? (It?s suddenly remarkable to me how easily this old name, with its winking exclusion of the Germans, has slipped into the news stories.) This was the root of my earlier defense of the intervention: I presumed humanitarian intentions. In this sense, the difference between an official argument for intervention and Michael?s argument against this particular one would be the difference between what he has called ?preventive? and ?preemptive? intervention. (This is nothing that Michael doesn?t already know.) The Allies decide that human destruction is imminent enough for them to act to prevent it, and with the near-universal condemnation of Qaddafi, they see no political reason to wait.
The problem with prevention, of course, is that you never find out what actuality it has precluded. We were ready for the opposition to be crushed in Benghazi. Perhaps within days?though it is impossible to know how the long the rebels would have held out once they?d regrouped in their stronghold. To the last man, or for the Egyptian border?
But even granting that prevention is legitimate, the case is slippery here, since that near-universal consensus against Qaddafi entailed only a no-fly zone. The no-fly zone ?plus? now underway seems to have the support of the Libyan rebel council, a group whose claims to legitimate representation are impossible to judge amid the amorphous rebellion against Qaddafi?s regime. (Given the advances of Qaddafi?s forces against the rebels in the days leading up to the Security Council vote, the imposition of a no-fly zone alone would not have been a decisive intervention on the rebels? behalf, though it would have given protection to them should they have retreated.) The decision by the Allies, extending as it does beyond the Arab League?s call for a no-fly zone, would seem then to betray arrogance, but perhaps more an arrogance of judgment than of imperial prerogative. I was surprised, and perhaps had my mind changed about international action, when I learned that the Arab League had agreed to a no-fly zone in the first place. Now, we await the results of the League?s emergency meeting, to see if they will support the Security Council?s authorization. The outcome of that meeting might be more important than we currently realize.
Thus far, Obama?s posture toward the upheaval in the Arab world has been essentially conservative: frequent statements endorsing a vague humanitarian position, peppered with occasional forceful statements of support for the opposition when the tide had clearly turned in that opposition?s favor. There had been no true ?boldness,? and given the illegitimacy of the United States in these countries, I didn?t think there should have been (short of imminent or ongoing massacre). I thought that this was the extent of Obama imperialism: moral intonations on the heels of history and a stewardship, along with occasional admonishments, of existing institutions, including the two inherited wars.
But if there wasn?t yet a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya, and humanitarianism wasn?t the primary concern of the Allies, then this is a bold act: it would mean that the Allies true intentions are to be partisans against Qaddafi. Perhaps something like this is true, or perhaps the Allies haven?t found time to make a distinction between democratic and humanitarian action (or can?t see the difference.) I?d expect that sort of muddled thinking from the Bush administration, and maybe it?s delusional to expect otherwise from Obama?s.
But while the intervention might be a bold act, it doesn?t appear that the United States, France, and Britain are planning to ?guide? a Libyan transition, à la Iraq 2003. We hear reports that Obama wants an intervention that lasts ?days, not weeks.? If that?s the case, I worry again of an Iraq parallel, but one more than a decade earlier, when another Bush called on Shiites and Kurds to rise against their tyrant and then left them to their tyrant?s guns. Can the Allies sufficiently debilitate in ?days, not weeks? Qaddafi?s regime, whose central compound is now surrounded by a civilian human shield, so that the rebels will not be slaughtered in the absence of Western guns? And can (and will) they weaken him enough so that resumed fighting between rebels and Qaddafi goes quickly in the rebels favor, rather than devolving into a protracted?and from the humanitarian perspective, worst of all?civil war?
Whatever the specific intentions behind it, the course that the intervention has taken is distressing. I desperately hope that the Obama’s administrations apparent casualness is well-deserved, and the Libyan rebels in a few days? time lead a glorious march to Tripoli, with Qaddafi hiding in some cave or bunker or rat hole until his demise, and with American and French and British materiel safely stowed back home. And then I desperately hope that the resentments running through Libyan society somehow produce a governing arrangement that negotiates between the political form of the state and the fact of a decentralized (and non-national) opposition. Hope nourished the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt; but so did armies that had defected to them. Hope, I fear we will see, is not enough to nourish the Libyan opposition.
Correction: An earlier version of this post claimed that Obama had not given an official address on the intervention. Obama did in fact give a White House address on Friday, explaining the case for intervention: “Now, here is why this matters to us. Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.” Obama’s first comments after the intervention had begun were made in Brazil.