Libya: A Response to Michael Walzer

Libya: A Response to Michael Walzer

Alan Johnson: A Response to Michael Walzer on Libya

Sidney Hook once said that how you held your position was more important than the position itself. Michael?s careful, cautious approach in ?The Wrong Intervention??the conclusion of which I am about to disagree with?is a model. Let?s not forget that too many ran headlong into support for the Iraq intervention, but quickly?often with little or no accounting?ran in the opposite direction when things turned sour. Michael?s deflationary, second-and-third-guessing mode is surely the right one.

And I agree with Michael on the need for a very high threshold for any intervention. Primo Levi was right to note that violence, even just violence, pulses out more violence in all directions, and in ways we usually struggle to control. And the sociologist of war Martin Shaw is right that ?war? these days is an odd business. It almost always means war on civilians, intentionally or unintentionally, as much as or more than between combatants.

But in the case of Libya, I do not agree with Michael?s opposition to the intervention.

First, the purpose of the intervention seems clear enough to me: to stop a genocide, or at the very least large-scale massacres of civilians. Qaddafi made it clear that he would show ?no mercy.? Tellingly he promised to ?find you in your closets? when his forces reached Benghazi. Combatants do not hide in closets. When the French Mirage jet fired on the tank column approaching Benghazi, stopping it in its tracks, it was reported to be about two kilometers long. The balance of evidence suggests to me that the intervention prevented a massacre.

In an earlier exchange with Norman Geras, Michael asked the right question about the prospect of intervention:

…[W]ould we be ready to watch the killing that would follow a Qaddafi victory?…The killing would be partisan, not genocidal, but there would be a lot of it, and it would be accompanied by imprisonment and torture on a large scale. So we need to begin now to argue about what we would want to happen then. Maybe, at some point short of that, or just short of it, we would want to see a military intervention that denied Qaddafi his victory. Maybe not, but let?s think clearly about what ?not? would mean.

I am not sure whether Michael has decided he is ?ready to watch the killing? (if you know what I mean) or whether he no longer thinks that there would have been much killing after all. I think there is vagueness in Michael?s argument. He writes:

There would have been a cruel repression after a Qaddafi victory, and it would have been necessary to help rebels and dissidents escape and to make sure that they had a place to go. Watching the repression wouldn?t be easy (though we seem to be having no difficulty doing that in Bahrain and Yemen). But the overthrow of tyrants and the establishment of democracy have to be local work, and in this case, sadly, the locals couldn?t do it.

I do not find this persuasive because: (a) we could not have helped rebels and dissidents escape without first doing what that Mirage jet did on day one?that?s just how it is; (b) ?rebels and dissidents? would not have been the only targets of a Qaddafi unleashed after the international community declared it would not intervene; (c) when Michael shifts the argument to one about ?the establishment of democracy,? I think he is confusing things, blurring a debate about an intervention to stop a genocide (which I think is what is happening) and an intervention to impose democracy on the locals (which is not happening and which no one is really talking about).

Having expressed a different view on the intervention to Michael, I want to end on a different note: to put my point at its most extreme, our difference of judgment does not matter. What matters is that we do the work set out by Michael on Dissent?s website:

We have new allies and comrades in the Arab world?the young people (and some older people too), who are fighting for freedom and democracy. We need to support their struggle, which means to make contact with them, ask what kind of help they think they need, and then try to provide it.

We must note the threat from Qaddafi. But we must also note the posters carried by the rebels: Qaddafi being hanged with a Star of David around his neck. In Iraq, we failed in our duty of solidarity with our allies and comrades. Not this time, whether we support the intervention or not.