Thursday, March 10, 2011

Humanitarian (Non) Intervention in Libya

Michael Walzer philosophizes about Western intervention in Libya. Walzer is a serious thinker on the laws of war, and generally puts his understanding above politics, meaning he supports military actions or disproves of them based on his understanding of the principles, not on the identity of whomever is sitting in the White House.

The problem is that all his formidable intellectual tools don't much help him in making up his mind about Libya today. He leans heavily on John Stuart Mill's ideas, in which democracy needs to be created by the demos, the people, not by intervening foreigners, and if the locals can't get there on their own they aren't ready yet. He also doesn't think things in Libya are serious enough yet, though he isn't sure they won't be. So he looks for the appropriate entity to intervene, if and when and perhaps: Italy? Nah. NATO. It won't. Finally he decides the Egyptians and Tunisians should intervene, and by this time he's no longer pondering a no-fly-zone, but rather a real invasion on the ground.

Egypt and Tunisia, huh? If that's the best he can come up with, maybe he's too much of a philosopher and not enough of a consumer of the daily news. Egypt and Tunisia happen both to be busy these days trying to sort out if they're ready for democracy, in Mill's terms, and probably couldn't cobble together the ability to intervene in Libya even if they desperately needed to: who would be the governments giving the marching orders, pray tell?

By way of jolting us out of our philosophical reveries, it could be bracing to read this description of how people are being tortured in Gaddafi's Libya, right now. (In an aside, I don't know how the Palestinian fellow can be called a "refugee", but that's not important in this context). The story underlines a truth which is often not mentioned in this sort of discussion: that it's not Gaddafi who's doing the torturing, nor is anyone following his direct orders. His regime is based on large numbers of evil and cruel men, who need no special orders to destroy human beings. All the agonizing in the West and at the UN and in the International Community is taking place while in Libyan prisons and camps people are agonizing in the real meaning of the word, meaning they're in terrible agony.

Part of the discussion is the extreme reluctance of Western powers to intervene is a way that could be construed as "colonial", or "post-colonial". This seems to me exceptionally cynical. The world has created a set of concepts and buzz-words in which rich and powerful countries may not intervene to save lives of suffering people today, because a century ago their forefathers may or may not have been nasty to the forefathers of today's culprits and victims. Of course, nothing the British ever did in places like Raj India was ever remotely as bad as what the Indians and emerging Pakistanis did to each otter after the English left, or what the West Pakistanis did to the East Pakistanis a generation later, or what the Sri-Lankens did to the Sri-Lankens another generation on, all in what had once been British India. No matter: colonialism trumps local crimes then, and does so in Libya now. But anyway, the issue ought to be moot, because the rebel half of the Libyans seem to want some sort of no-fly-zone, so the colonial part shouldn't be relevant, and the French have apparently even officially recognized them as the emerging government.

Seen from an Israeli perspective, both sides of the Libyan conflict are probably equally distasteful. But one side has heavy weapons and a system which tortures people, and the other side is resisting them. If morality plays a role in international relations, two weeks ago was the time to take action to protect the Libyan people who want a better life. If it doesn't - and perhaps maybe it doesn't - then no action should be taken, period, and the Libyans should be told they're on their own while the world gets on with other things, and drop the pretenses.

Meanwhile, in another faraway land, the Iranians are supplying the Taliban with weapons the better to kill Western forces and then terrorize Afghans. To the best of my understanding, they didn't seek international support or legitimation for this, they just did it.


Juniper in the Desert said...

The biggest colonisers of all time, are the mozlems. Starting out as a small tribe of mozlemised Arabs, they moved through Arabia, Mesopotamia,Judea and Samaria, Persia, India, Indonesia, Northern China, southern Russia, the Caucasus, Byzantium/Turkey,Eastern Europe and HALF OF AFRICA!
But not one commentator has ever called them colonists, and they are still there, unlike the British, the French, Italians, Germans!!! (Spanish have become part of their colonies.)
The mozlems are the most vicious and egregious colonisers on the planet, destroying everything, creating nothing but chaos and agony.
The West should have intervened in Iran 2009, but they were too scared the mozzies would gang up against them and leave them without oil.
The longer the West leaves it, the worse it will get. And Israel will have to save the West by having the guts to nuke the real colonists - hopefully with all the anti-semites who will all gather in mozlem lands to act as human-shields!! (I don't think!!)

Silke said...

as an aside to Libya here is an interesting piece of history as to who smoothed the way for Ghadafi to be treated like a respectable one again - and no it wasn't the UK even though that picture of Tony Blair seems to be everybody's favourite - enjoy insofar the subject allows:


for almost 10 years now I have been listening to or reading stuff galore by probably the majority of every thinker or writer who made it through the noise

- lots and lots and lots of them are wonderful to read and sound and reasonable and pure delight when it comes to analysis but once they switch into, this is the solution, they all lose it, the "pros" and the "antis" alike and what makes me object is that they more often than not find a culprit, somebody has done something wrong or is doing something not perfect enough and guess who it is - right - the favourite for the "pros" is Israel's failure in the PR and/or intelligence field the favourite for the "antis" is whatever they can come up with to blame on the West and some members of the west especially.

... and as I've probably said on this blog once before Walzer is no exception
and while I am at it here is Michael Sandel at Philosophy Bites

another one of those who has a lot to say worth thinking about but beware of his solutions.

Silke said...

How fitting - just in - Theodor Fontane is said to have said:

"Überall da, wo es auf das 'Gestalten' ankommt, reden die Philosophen Unsinn. Es fehlt ihnen ganz das Organ für das, was die Hauptsache ist."

= roughly:
Wherever Forming/Doing is asked for, philosophers talk nonsense. They completely lack the sense for that which is the main issue.

RK said...

Of course, nothing the British ever did in places like Raj India was ever remotely as bad as what the Indians and emerging Pakistanis did to each otter after the English left, or what the West Pakistanis did to the East Pakistanis a generation later, or what the Sri-Lankens did to the Sri-Lankens another generation on, all in what had once been British India.

Your point about post-colonial guilt is well taken, but are the numbers here so clear? From what I understand, there were around 20 famines following the start of direct British rule in India. The final one, the Bengal famine of 1943, might have killed over three times the number of people who died during the partition. Amartya Sen famously showed that this was largely due to mismanagement by the colonial authorities rather than agricultural factors. (By contrast, independent India has never had experienced a famine.) And from what I remember, many of the nineteenth-century famines were caused by British mercantile policy, which pressured Indian farmers into producing cash crops like cotton, jute, and tea. (I understand that there are revisionist interpretations of the Bengal famine today that de-emphasize the British role, but does your argument depend on the revisionists being correct?)

In any case, I'm not sure what the point of the comparison is supposed to be. Is it that people disapprove of British or Western interventions because their colonial actions are judged according to a double standard? I don't think the Bangladeshis would welcome Pakistani intervention, or the Pakistanis Indian intervention, any more than any of them would welcome neo-colonial British intervention today.

Yaacov said...

RK -

I admit to not knowing enough about the Indian famines. Yet you'll understand when I refuse to equate mismanagement or ineptitude with the direct intentional killing of large numbers of people.

The point is that the whole "colonial guilt" thing is idiotic. In the Libyan case, it's worse than idiotic, it's criminal. If powerful nations have the ability to stop large-scale killing in a morally crystal-clear case and with very little danger to their own forces, yet they refrain because of some scatter-brained notion of inherited guilt for something which anyways was never historically true, they're cowards or evil or both. Unless their position is that intervening in the massacres of other nations isn't their business - that's an intellectually coherent argument, but then cut out all the chatter-chatter-chatter about UN sanctioned action, international law and the rest.

Inherited guilt, by the way, is a Christian notion. I don't have any affinity with it.

RK said...

Sure, mismanagement isn't the same as intentional killing. But institutionalized government policies aren't the same as unplanned rioting, either. (That's one reason why the US government's sanctioning Jim Crow is seen as worse than black-on-white crime in the 80's.) In any case, the traditional view is that the British rulers were guilty of apathy (they didn't care about their Indian subjects) and greed (they indirectly caused the famines in pursuit of their mercantile policy), not just incompetence.

Not that it matters, since Western governments haven't been pleading post-colonial guilt, as far as I know. The two biggest ex-colonialists, Britain and France, have come out in favor of a no-fly zone (with UN approval) while in the US, Secretary Gates has been arguing that intervention would be ineffective and costly, not that it would be illegitimate. The only pre-emptive accusations of neo-colonialism seem to be from the usual suspects: left-wing commentators and Gaddafi himself.

I don't know too much about Christian theology, but I don't think they believe in inherited guilt as a general matter, as opposed to original sin specifically. (Though you're right that inherited guilt does seem to resonate deeply with Europeans and Americans -- and Westernized Israelis -- when it comes to things like the Native Americans, the Holocaust, and of course colonialism.) But Jews believe in similar things too. For instance, there's a Rashi that states that whenever the Jewish people are punished, it includes part of the punishment for "het haegel."

RK said...

Oops, my comment got swallowed by the spam filter. Any chance of restoring it?

Anonymous said...

If there were no oil in Libya, it would be just another Congo to the West.


Barry Meislin said...

That being said, while the world turns a blind eye to the various and sundry massacres that take place in varios and sundry locales around the world, they are trying their hardest to encourage and ensure that a massacre of Jews will take place---or at least be attempted and given the best chances to succeed---in the Middle East.

Sorry, not Jews. Zionists. Or Israelis. Oh, whatever....

Silke said...

last night I heard a talk with a German anthropologist who has friends in the Benghazi area and travelled there recently (sorry no transcript).

He sounded like he knew what he was talking about (no pundit resembling authoritarianism in the voice) and told that the tribes i.e. the elites of the tribes which he described as modern and capable was working hard to keep government services going from garbage to medical service.

He also said that there is still competition and that the groups work at their international relations.

So maybe the confusing voices of this tht and the other from western governments depend on which envoy from which tribe or tribes they have been last listening to.

and foolish me keeps hoping that they have some intelligence which enables them to a bit of independent decision finding with desk drawers full of contingency plans for all imaginable scenarios ...

(and whether any of these groups will turn out to be better at anything he didn't mention)

Silke said...


in German it is called "ErbSünde" = inherited sin - I assume that this stems from Luther's writings and thus is a rather valid and common view alongside original sin however that is defined.

In school I was told that only baptism washes the inherited sin away, i.e. anybody not baptised is in that state of inherited sin and thus not eligible for heaven after death.

While I am at it the Pope can declare all kinds of nice things, the evil insinuations are deeply embedded in the whole of it and if you read up on Jesus trial in the Matthäus-Evangelium all you can do is shudder. I haven't read anything that somebody suggests for that to be reworded. i.e. on the one day they teach what the pope says and on the other they read the Luther-text? A lot of clarity that is going to produce in the head of kids unless of course we go back to the times when it was considered a no-no to read scripture without guidance.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to Libya, neither the UK nor France are ex-colonialists. Italy is.


Silke said...

but when it comes to mea-culpa-ism the Anglos or maybe all predominantly protestant ones are not willing to be outclassed.

That there is no system of atonements after which things are OK again has its draw backs. It frees one from the potential tyranny of a bad village priest (who hears confessions) but makes one prone to wallow in remorse endlessly.

Therefore I am sure they (and we) won't accord Italy this prize without a stiff competition.

Dov Kaiser said...

"...not on the identity of whomever is sitting in the White House."

Point of grammar: should be "whoever", as it is the subject to the clause " sitting..."