Libya and Non-Intervention

My initial reaction to the U.S.-led attack in Libya was rather different than Michael Walzer?s, and closer to Nick Serpe?s, who has now revised his view. Not condemnation, but the hope that the military campaign would be part of a successful effort that freed Libya. This, of course, is exactly the kind of reaction that Nick?s RCP interlocutor finds so appalling. I would want to qualify that reaction with a consideration of the many dangers of the campaign. Still, I am not led like Michael to condemn it. Were it to succeed within the confines of proportionality, many would retrospectively endorse it. Of course, if it fails quite the opposite will be the case.

I am not convinced about the hard Millean line that Michael draws between humanitarian intervention and intervention to aid the side of justice in a political rebellion. One kind of consideration in favor of the distinction would involve proportionality. The moral costs of war are only outweighed if there is a massive humanitarian tragedy. But one cannot argue that view and support an Egyptian or Tunisian assault, as Michael does. Nor can you easily support the use of force by the rebels.

Another possible consideration is that only a humanitarian disaster can outweigh concerns about imperialism or U.S. hegemony. History provides plenty of reasons to take such concerns seriously, but there is reason to think that their force is weakened in this case. General Wesley Clark argues that there are not significant U.S. interests at stake. (This leads him to criticize the effort.) Moreover, there is a significant multilateral aspect to this effort that diminishes these concerns.

Another argument in favor of the strong distinction between humanitarian intervention and supporting a just cause in rebellion is world-order-based. Matthew Yglesias has made this kind of argument against the intervention. But any confidence in that as a moral argument has to be based upon some grand calculation that an intervention will disrupt the world order so significantly that the moral costs are prohibitive. While that might be true in particular cases, especially if we believe the intervention likely to fail, it does not provide grounds to reject non-humanitarian interventions in principle and across the board.

Another reason to endorse the Millean principle would be the belief that unless people can win a political-military struggle on their own, they do not deserve democracy. Michael?s closing comments might be read as expressing sympathy for this view. If the military in Libya had shown the restraint of the military in Egypt, the regime probably would have fallen as it did in Egypt. I can?t see how whether a people deserves democracy or not can possibly be based on a consideration like that.

So, without the confidence in the Millean principle that Michael has, I am left to ask other questions about the intervention. Although the public rationale for the intervention is to establish a no-fly zone, it seems pretty clear that intervention was decided upon in a hurry after it looked like the rebels were about to lose Benghazi. If it is an effort to buy the rebels some time and space, the question is, what will they be able to do with these goods? An intervention to support a cause that cannot win could not be justified. But do we know enough to be confident that they have a reasonable hope of winning given such time and space? How much time is needed? Or is the more likely outcome an indefinitely divided state and ongoing hostilities?

Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that this is a chance for the United States to offer support to the democratic opening in the Middle East and to ally itself with a new generation of activists. If the intervention has that effect, it will be good. But her argument then depends a great deal on how the intervention will be perceived, and that will depend in part both on how it is carried out and whether it is successful.

My view is that assessing these sorts of interventions is very difficult, much more difficult than would be the case if we could rely on a Millean self-determination principle. So much depends upon speculation about outcomes, victories, likely conduct, and so on. But because there is justice on the side of the Libyan rebels, I hope that the intervention will be successful, even if I cannot resist doubts about many of the speculative matters.

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