The end of liberal interventionism would be a wonderful new beginning

For liberalism, that is. Alas, there is no end in sight.

Elias points us to this piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter in which she writes:

Looking forward, it is really not up to the west, much less the US, to plan Libya’s transition. It is a relief to see so many articles and statements reflecting lessons learnt from Iraq. But the Libyans are far ahead of where the US was when the initial fighting ended in Iraq. The National Transitional Council has a draft constitutional charter that is impressive in scope, aspirations and detail – including 37 articles on rights, freedoms and governance arrangements.

The sceptics’ response to all this, of course, is that it is too early to tell. In a year, or a decade, Libya could disintegrate into tribal conflict or Islamist insurgency, or split apart or lurch from one strongman to another. But the question for those who opposed the intervention is whether any of those things is worse than Col Gaddafi staying on by increasingly brutal means for many more years. Instability and worse would follow when he died, even had he orchestrated a transition.

The sceptics must now admit that the real choice in Libya was between temporary stability and the illusion of control, or fluidity and the ability to influence events driven by much larger forces. Welcome to the tough choices of foreign policy in the 21st century. Libya proves the west can make those choices wisely after all.

Matt Steinglass nods:

To have failed to intervene in Libya would have been a disaster for any future claim to intervention on human-rights grounds. It would have essentially signaled a temporary surrender by the democratic world on the ideals of liberal internationalism.

I suppose our failure to intervene in Syria will likewise be seen as a surrender? A disaster for any future claim to interventionism?

Well I certainly hope so. Setting aside the obvious selectiveness of our interventions, it is remarkable to me how otherwise reasonable people like Steinglass can say such remarkably silly things when it comes to blowing up people half a world away. Oh the failure of our refusal to partake in violence, in another country’s own civil war. What moral high ground we are forced to cede when we forsake liberal intervention and leave other people to their own devices!

Slaughter, meanwhile, is talking in circles. She rightly notes that skeptics argue that it is too early to tell, but then pivots to an almost entirely unrelated statement by claiming that the “sceptics must now admit that the real choice in Libya was between temporary stability and the illusion of control, or fluidity and the ability to influence events driven by much larger forces”. Why must we admit this? Why was this the choice? The choice was quite simply between lending our air support to the rebels – who we knew virtually nothing about – or letting the Libyans manage their own affairs.

That was the choice, not this sleight-of-hand nonsense about illusion of control vs the ability to influence events. And how does Libya prove anything yet? Ms. Slaughter, you just admitted that war critics are arguing that things might still fall apart, that indeed the toppling of Gaddafi is the quick and easy part and that the aftermath is the real danger.

That and the strengthening of the hawks’ hand in all of this. The ‘liberal interventionist’ ideal is alive and well, as Steinglass points out. This in spite of the Congo, in spite of Syria, in spite of North Korea and Iran, in spite of all the atrocities we ignore. The naiveté of interventionists like Slaughter lives on, but at least the Libyan rebels have scraps of paper “including 37 articles on rights, freedoms and governance arrangements.” They have guns, too, which I imagine will matter a great deal more in coming weeks.

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27 thoughts on “The end of liberal interventionism would be a wonderful new beginning

  1. There’s an awful lot hiding behind “letting the Libyans manage their own affairs”. Libya has made a series of commitments, including UN membership, that oblige the Libyan state to conduct itself with a minimal level of respect for the human rights of the Libyan people. Having violated those commitments and having been warned by the Security Council in Resolution 1970 to cease this conduct, the Security Council returned to the situation in Resolution 1973 authorizing force against Libya. As a supporter of humanitarian intervention myself, this is one of the more straightforward cases – even China and Russia agreed to permit intervention. Part of what baffles me about the non-interventionist position is the seemingly even lower bar as to state (mis)conduct than China and Russia. Part of the ongoing diplomacy with respect to Syria is putting together the coalition to isolate Syria for its recent conduct, with countries like Turkey spending 6 hours with Assad trying to convince him to change course. Contrary to many of the glib remarks, this isn’t an expression of eagerness to bomb people half a word away. So I ask, take the recent UN OHCHR report on Syria for instance (Aug. 17th), what should the international community do in the face of crimes against humanity? What should the international community do when states fail to comply with their core human rights obligations?

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    • If we are attacked we should defend ourselves. If an ally of ours is attacked we should help protect them. We should not meddle in the affairs of another countries, including their internal affairs – including civil war.

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        • I’m dubious that an internally confined genocide can be properly prevented in the first place. The crack down in Libya and Syria do not qualify as genocide. In Rwanda we were too late, which will often be the case (always?) with intervention in a massacre. Regional allies should take the lead regardless, not America. There are also other ways to apply pressure beyond military intervention.

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          • “Regional allies should take the lead regardless, not America.”

            For the most part I agree with this, though sometimes it’s hard if a country has no functioning states in the region, a problem that seems to be fading slowly. So, to this end, the Libya episode had a primarily regional response. Let’s face it, France, Britain, and Italy (refugee flow to Italy was a HUGE concern) did the lion’s share of work here, with the Arab League doing so in both Libya and Syria as well. This is all much more so than in Iraq. I can see why you think these are both egregious foreign policies for the U.S., but Libya seems to fit your limited qualifications for some kind of intervention better, no? Your rhetoric leads me to believe you view all interventions that involve U.S. military intelligence and weapons in any way, shape, or form to be equal, but surely there must be some shades of grey in there, even if it is only a *lesser* evil?

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          • There are also other ways to apply pressure beyond military intervention.

            No disagreement there.

            I brought up genocide in part to test the limits of your proposition about the internal affairs of states. As for being too late, the US had warning of the impending violence in Rwanda, particularly from Romeo Daillaire and the existing UN mission, UNAMIR. The State Department would dance around the word genocide in their press briefings, because once used it would mean more action would be necessary. So the formulation “acts of genocide” was carved out to skirt this question. Lastly, the little actions the US did take had consequences – specifically the story of US diplomats threatening genocidaires that if they proceeded to kill the people in a particular building there would be consequences. Those people were saved, would that the US government brought more of its considerable energies to bear in saving others. (Samantha Power’s Bystanders to Genocide article in the Atlantic and her “Problem from Hell” are both outstanding pieces of work on the warnings available to policymakers.)

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  2. One thing to note about the liberal ‘humanitarian’ intervention in the case of Libya is that – apart from the surface rhetoric – it maps nicely onto the PNAC argument for invading Iraq. The argument there was that control of MENA oil reserves was necessary for the US to maintain it’s economic status (more, that whoever controlled those resources would dominate the 21st century global economy). The dressing on that cake was that we will be greeted as liberators in Iraq (which we were!) and that MENA dictatorships controlling oil would crumble in the face of ‘liberalization’ and ‘democracy’. Well, part of that came true: we are now liberating Libya of it’s oil reserves (to some degree, just so long as most of that oil flows to the west).

    In that sense, I think a good argument could be made that Obama is merely continuing the PNAC doctrine. That there are other justifications for intervening, however, isn’t surprising. Most military interventions are overdetermined (at least rhetorically but also in fact): resource control/humanitarian concerns/self-defense/promoting democracy/etc.

    But the thing I think needs highlighting is that the PNAC guys outlined a plan of conquest back in the late 90s, which Bush implemented and Obama is continuing. That knocks a bit of the shine off what may in fact end up being an example of ‘good intervention’.

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  3. I believe that intervention is a good thing at times, but it should be discussed at least somewhat.

    Intervention in the Balkins was certainly worth-while, don’t you think? If Clinton had been able to push harder at Afghanistan (having special ops follow bin Laden into Khandahar, for example), wouldn’t have that intervention been better both for us and the Afghanis?

    After Gulf War 1, there were pockets of resistance to Hussein. GHW Bush promised support, and I think that if he had kept his word — supporting but not leading a revolution, we would be looking at an Iraq in much better shape. An intervention of that sort would have been worth-while.

    Now, look at the liberal intervention in Egypt… Oh wait, there really wasn’t any. The Egyptians were able to topple Mubarrak on their own, and didn’t need any help. It looks like they will be able to rein in the military bosses, and free elections look immenent.

    As to whether it was the US, England or France that lent the most planes, it was the Libyans who actually fought. It’s in our best interest to offer guidence, lightly, and let the Libyans form their own government.

    Intervention in Grenada — that was a joke.

    That’s how this liberal sees it.

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    • Is there any way to predict, prior to intervention, whether or not your intervention will be successful?

      If there is, with what degree of probability are you comfortable saying, “It’s okay to go in, here.”?

      If there is, and an intervention seems to be unlikely to work by your predictive power… would you still go in, in some circumstances? If so, what would they be?

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  4. I’m fairly critical of libertarian philosophy and this is one of the ares where I think it is severely lacking.

    If I understand correctly, Libertaria would never attack another country for genocide, as long as it’s not directly affecting its populace. Maybe I have it wrong — if so, I’d be delighted to be corrected. If I’m right, I wouldn’t want to live in Libetaria.

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    • When you talk about opposition to genocide, are you talking about opposing it to the point where you’d be willing to vote for a person who would support unmanned drones blowing up the odd group of people, does it mean that you’d be willing to volunteer to join the army, or are there other considerations when it comes to wanting to live in a country that is willing to make the hard decisions and fight genocide?

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      • Jaybird, I’d say opposition to genocide means implementing the recommendations of the Genocide Prevention Task Force: money devoted to prevention, tripwires in the normal policy process to detect and respond to risk areas, a holistic perspective across national security-related departments, early high level attention to potential sites of mass atrocities, urgent diplomatic action, stronger multilateral institutions, and yes, if necessary deploying military force. So for instance, I’d say that the recent Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities (PSD-10) is a step forward in effectively opposing genocide.

        The non-interventionists have been pointedly asking, well what about Syria, North Korea, what if Tiananmen Square happens again, are liberal interventionists getting set to bomb all these countries too? Worthy questions, and though it may not be apparent in my arguments about the responsibility to protect, I keenly appreciate the limits of American power and the international community’s willingness to respond decisively to crimes against humanity. On the other side, have the non-interventionists responded to the meaning of “never again” and the whole post-WWII human rights regime?

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        • Syria and Tiananmen Square have been horrible, but they don’t begin to approach genocide. Of course, that word has been pretty badly Vizzini’d, with the same people calling Israel “genocidal” and pointing out that the problem of the Occupied Territories grows along with their population.

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          • Fair enough. I’ve been trying to be precise with my words and stick to “crimes against humanity” for a broader range of misconduct beyond genocide, and I didn’t mean to draw a direct equivalence between Tiananmen or Syria’s actions now and genocide. I would say that the recent OHCHR report on Syria (pdf) makes a strong case that Syria is committing crimes against humanity, from the Patterns of violence section,

            The Mission found a pattern of human rights violations that constitutes widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population, which may amount to crimes against humanity as provided for in article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

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      • That’s a very good question. It’s easy to say “Your son or daughter should fight against [X]”, but what am I willing to give up?

        For one thing, I’d prefer that we all TRULY “support the troops”, not by sticking dumb decals on our cars, but by making sure they have the best equipment when we put them in harm’s way (especially in wars of choice, like Iraq). By making sure they get good medical care — on active duty and a home. By bringing back the GI Bill. I’d be willing to pay for this — we can take the money from all the superfluous battleships and carriers being built.

        I’ll try to get back to this, because I think it’s an important topic, but I don’t have the energy at the moment.

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