Saturday 19 March 2011

What the 'whaddabouters' ignore

"But whaddabout Burma? North Korea? Zimbabwe? Cote d'Ivoire? Bahrain? Saudi Arabia?"

But have you noticed how easy it appears to be to write that with so little interest in the examples cited? Almost every piece citing, instrumentally, the tragic circumstances of the peoples of these countries as a reason to do nothing about Libya seems to run out of space just before making any suggestion about what, if anything, might be done if any of these cases.

Indeed, were anything proposed in one of these countries instead of Libya, there would surely be a knockdown objection: whaddabout Libya?

Of course, these are mostly weak, tangential answers to the question: "what could be done to prevent crimes against humanity in Libya?"

To call a double standard, you still need to decide which side of the fence you are on.

And there are good as well as bad reasons for making distinctions between different cases. The bad reasons often relate to the old 'stability over democracy' argument which the Prime Minister has criticised, and an apparent free pass for allies doing what adversaries can not.

But there are relevant differences too.

First, the immediate humanitarian danger. Many terrible and intractable examples are cited. The scale of immediate risk to human life through gross violations of rights, and the risks to regional and international peace and security generated, are on a different scale right now in Libya than most other cases.

Second, practicality: the moral case for outside involvement, in whatever form, depends on there being something important that can realistically be achieved. Foreign engagement can take many forms - forms of support for a legitimate and threatened government; diplomatic and coercive pressure short of force; in extremis, the use of arms. But part of the ethical assessment over whether any such course is right depends on the consequential calculus of the chance of achieving a significant outcome, against the risks both of failure and of doing nothing. it would be perfectly daft to claim that moral consistency demands that approaches with a decent chance of success somewhere must also be replicated in contexts where they would almost certainly be futile. While this may be sad news for, say, Chechnya, being unable to act in one situation is not in itself a case against acting somewhere else where it is possible.

Third, legitimacy and what domestic actors want.

The strongest principled argument for having different approaches would be this: those who we might want to assist or demonstrate solidarity might recommend different causes of external action, again because the situations are different.

This is the case for contextual universalism: the first question is "what do those who we might want to support think we should do (and not do), taking very seriously their advice about what might help and hinder. The form that external solidarity takes should be shaped by advice from within.

Those worrying about "western imperialism" in this case might at least have been given pause for thought by the views of the Arab League and the scenes from the street of Benghazi. There are other cases - Iran or Zimbabwe - where western states should take a lower profile, for fear of assisting the oppressor. That the ANC lobbied for sanctions on apartheid South Africa was a strong point in their favour; the argument might have been different if they had taken a different view.

The influence of outsiders is limited, but it is rarely nil or negligible. For example, there will certainly be cases where international action could act to prevent a massacre, but the task of creating a political settlement afterwards will depend primarily on local actors, with international support and sponsorship.


So why not take the whaddabouters at their word, as wanting to raise international consciousness of other crises and potential humanitarian emergencies? There are serious voices trying to do that, mostly while being constructively and critically supportive of the UN approach to Libya.

Wouldn't it be great to think that the Whaddabouters will now be swelling the advocacy ranks of those organisations like the excellent International Crisis Group, who plug away at what can be achieved on the most apparently intractable crises whether they are in the headlines or not.

Next Left's modest contribution is to begin a quick occasional "whaddabouter's guide" to some of the key crises that suddenly seem to be of renewed interest:

(1) Whaddabout Cote d'Ivoire?

The escalating political crisis in Ivory Coast ought to be of immediate concern to the UN Security Council as well as the African Union and Ecowas. As Foreign Policy reports, the Libyan crisis may be taken as an opportunity to restart the country's civil war.

The context is straightforward: President Laurent Gbago lost the Presidential election last year, and is using the force of arms to try to stay on. The UN, the African Union and Ecowas have all certified that his opponent Alassane Ouattara was the legitimate election winner, following agreed processes of international oversight, but Gbago doctored the results and is fighting to stay on.

The African Union has been mediating in the crisis - trying to manage the transition to the legitimate President Ouattara, while suggesting negotiation could find some junior power-sharing role for the defeated Gbago as part of the transition.

Gbago seems willing to fight on at all costs, and is inciting a return to civil war. The UN Secretary-General suggests Thursday's attack on civilians, allegedly by forces loyal to Gbago, may have been a crime against humanity, and

The opposition's approach has been that that it is useful to have won the elections, and to be internationally recognised as having the legitimacy to govern, but that it may yet be even more useful to have sufficient forces on the ground to take power as well. Well informed observers suggest they may well have the military means to prevail, though it is of course an important international concern to minimise the human costs.

Even realist whaddabouters might see why Ivory Coast offers a clear example of why the generic (and morally relativist) "don't get involved in civil wars" principle is often a weak one in specific cases. The international community should seek to prevent the threatened civil war, by doing everything possible to support current African efforts to bring the elected government to power without one. Security Council resolutions, sanctions against the illegitimate regime and investigating the case for ICC indictment may prove useful tools here. The outgoing government accuses Nigeria of assisting and arming the legitimately elected "rebels", and one perhaps contentious approach will be to consider ways to confer international legitimacy and support for them if Gbago does insist on fighting rather than talking.

(2) Whaddabout Bahrain?

While citing Chechnya or North Korea are primarily rhetorical, Bahrain is the case where the double standards charge is most acute, and ought to trouble the multilateral system and western powers.

Saudi Arabia is playing a decisive role in helping to suppress Bahrain's citizens, who began making moderate calls for more accountable and representative reforms, and who have been greeted with extreme repression, and even now the symbolic destruction of Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of the protests.

On Bahrain, I would find it difficult to disagree with much in this description from The Guardian's left-wing columnist Seumas Milne (though without sharing his conclusion about the Libyan case).

Saudi Arabia's dangerous quasi-invasion of Bahrain is a reminder that Libya is very far from being the only place where hopes are being stifled. The west's closest Arab ally, which has declared protest un-Islamic, bans political parties and holds an estimated 8,000 political prisoners, has sent troops to bolster the Bahraini autocracy's bloody resistance to democratic reform.

Underlying the Saudi provocation is a combustible cocktail of sectarian and strategic calculations. Bahrain's secular opposition to the Sunni ruling family is mainly supported by the island's Shia majority. The Saudi regime fears both the influence of Iran in a Shia-dominated Bahrain and the infection of its own repressed Shia minority – concentrated in the eastern region, centre of the largest oil reserves in the world.

Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.

Saudi Arabia's regime has been briefing international journalists about how different their domestic context from the democratic upheavals elsewhere. Part of the story of their intervention in Bahrain is that they are considerably more nervous than that.

With Saudi fears of Iranian influence in Bahrain, this is shaping up as the classic case of a "stability versus democracy" strategy. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that we won't be repeating those mistakes in future. The US administration is pursuing the argument that the self-interest of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's rulers is in pursuing democratic reforms, but with little sign

“Our message to Saudi Arabia is that if you want to avoid the fate of Mubarak, you need to move toward genuine and gradual reform,” said Mr. Malley of the International Crisis Group. “But what the Saudis are hearing instead is that reform is actually the path to Mubarak’s fate.”

(3) Whaddabout Burma?

The highly repressive Burmese regime is not currently engaged in live military activities on a similar scale to those in Libya. However, there is every case for a resolution similar to that which was adopted in February over Libya, namely an international commission of inquiry into human rights abuses, and a reference to the International Criminal Court.

The independent Burmese exile magazine Irrawaddy makes the point, in comparing the two cases, that the UN is stalling on the recommendation of its own human rights rapporteur:

In early 2010, Tomás Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Burma, took an unprecedented move in a report to the HRC, calling for a Commission of Inquiry into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. Neither the HRC nor the UNSC have acted on this recommendation to date.

Again, there is a realpolitik problem here. A significant block to consistent UN action on Burma is the close relationship of the Chinese government with the Burmese Junta.

It is interesting that the Chinese government saw that it would face reputational damage if it vetoed the Libya resolution. At some point, perhaps when the international focus of the current crisis has passed, there should be concerted Parliamentary and citizens' pressure on EU and other democratic governments in the Human Rights Commission and UN Security Council to act on the Special Rapporteur's report.

If China does wish to block this, they could at least own and defend the position. It might even prove trickier than they anticipate.


Whaddayathink about that, whaddabouters?

Seriously, the whaddabouters need to be put under more pressure to say something sensible about the cases that they raise - including, foundationally, to decide if they believe in any framework of international law and institutions at all.

The point is most often a call to argue that "we can't be the world's policeman" (ie, those who can not do everything should do nothing), with "we" usually meaning Britain and/or the US. The same people are often, on realist grounds, deeply sceptical about any multilateral response.

The idealistic notion that "we" could ideally mean the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, with the US, EU, African Union, Arab League, other regional alliances and states playing a hands-on role where most relevant is also being rejected. The history and contemporary practice is not quite as this parochial viewpoint seems to think. Britain got involved in Sierra Leone and Australia led in East Timor; Nato and the EU led in Kosovo or Macedonia; the UN carries out many missions you hear little about, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nigeria providing more troops for UN missions than any other nations.

'We can't all make a reasonable contribution to protecting the human rights we've signed up to from the most gross and systematic violations' seems to me a weak argument.

And the whaddabouters might also be asked to demonstrate how the UN resolution over Libya has in any way assisted the dictatorships they are (at least rhetorically) concerned to discomfort. Much may depend on the outcome, but the Libyan case has the potential to provide something of a watershed moment in internal repression being cited as a chapter seven threat to international peace and security at the UN. (Interesting that the Zimbabwean reports that Robert Mugabe has committed 500 troops to assist his close ally Gaddaffi, which is one way to use the resources of a collapsed economy).

So, yes, the Libya decision ought to now create pressure on the international system to be bolder on other similar cases of extreme internal repression than it has in the past. The threshold at which sovereignty is forfeited by using it as a licence to kill will remain a very high one.

But, if you can carry a whaddabout analogy, you might just have a point for diplomatic action, rather than universal inaction and inert despair.


That's enough whaddaboutery for now. But we would very much welcome constructive advice, information and links about these and other key international issues which ought not to be ignored during the Libya crisis.


Neil McNaughton said...

Sunder - Quite a tour de force! I agree with the approach of suggesting that every case is different, because, well, every case is different. But they do have something in common, which is, of course, the level of information which is now able to circulate within societies as well as leaking in from the outside has increased dramatically and, in historical terms, very recently. If we take the view that the mass of the people will always prevail ultimately, in other words totalitarian dictatorships cannot be sustained forever, the picture looks encouraging. It is interesting that the Orwellian vision, portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, has not arrived and that, in fact, the very opposite is occurring. Far from being able to control history, knowledge and consciousness, regimes are actually losing their grip on it (something Gorbachev understood well enough afetr Chernobyl, topically enough). The implication of this is that, in the long run, we need do nothing as the critical mass of the people will prevail. There is still, of course the question of whether we can stand aside and watch humantarian disasters unfold while the people are organising themselves, but maybe we have to take the long view and do some political cost-benefit analysis. Putting it crudely, non-intervention may save more lives in the long run than intervention can save in the short.

Anonymous said...

Good piece. What annoys me very much about the 'whatabout' argument is it is completly devoid of any kind of contextual content whatsoever. A no-fly zone over Bahrain would, for example, be completly pointless and the only realistically useful form a military intervention could take would involve ground troops - something that 99% of the people who say 'what about' would totally oppose.

However, in this case don't you think there is a clear case for some form of sanction at least when it comes to the arms trade?

Robert said...

What mine was no good, love the idea of free speech.

Image after image of the dead, men and boys, showed that those killed in the most violent day in the capital city Sana'a for 30 years had been systematically shot through the head and neck by gunmen positioned on city rooftops.

Yet even as the international community condemned Friday's violence, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president of 32 years, remained unbowed as his security forces visited more bloodshed on protesters in the port city of Aden, a strategic British colony until 1963.

Mark Pack said...

My basic attitude is that it is better to be occasionally and even inconsistently right rather than never do the right thing.

I do sometimes wonder if the 'what about...' fans apply the same logic to their own lives. E.g. do you never give money to charity because in response to any donation to one cause someone could object listing thousands of other good causes you've done nothing for?

Better to occasionally do right than never do it.

Unknown said...

This is a good argument. But I am not sure that it responds directly to the point being made by 'whaddabouters'. Isn't their point something like the following:

a) If your motivations were simply to help the helpless and spread freedom and goodwill then you would seek to do that at every opportunity

b) there are lots of situations which don't seem to interest you (and yet you could do things - as Sunder has so eloquently shown).

c) Therefore your motivations are something other than a desire to help the helpless etc.

That is, the whaddabout argument is not saying one should only act if one can act everywhere - rather it is a way of putting into question the motivations of those intervening (and thus casting a different light on what they are doing).

I am not sure that all those labelled 'decents' or 'stoppers' are in fact opposed to the principle of using military force to achieve humanitarian goals.

Some are - on the grounds that they are concerned about the increased powers of the UNSC and a covert extension of the rights and capacities of some to tell others what to do. In a sense, their worry is similar to that of civil rights types who might say 'well, I don't like terrorism but I don't like the homeland security act giving the government the right to listen to my phone-calls'.

But a lot seem to be opposed not to the principle but to the practice of intervention (either out of pacifism or because they think that the military force used will be cak-handed and blow up weddings etc. as in Afghanistan).

A lot more simply think that the motivations for intervention are something other than humanitarian and so they find the whole thing suspect. For them, the whaddabout argument is a way of bringing this out by means of a comparison.

Consequently, those in favor of humanitarian intervention have to convince critics of:

a) the military skill to be employed

b) the true motivations of those intervening (i.e. that they are not in fact seizing an opportunity to direct revolutionary activity which hitherto has wrongfooted and scared them, and will not seek to replace Gadaffi with someone of their own choosing).

It will be not lost on readers of a Fabian blog that the issue is, then, not one of fundamental morality or deep-seated ideology but of trust in the intentions and capabilities of those in authority.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for responses.

Neil - The Orwell 1984 point is an interesting one.

You are right that the 'different cases are different' objection to whaddaboutery does not mean rejecting cogent objections to any specific case, or supporting any or every possible intervention. It is not always Munich 1938, nor is it always Vietnam, or Suez 1956, or Rwanda 1994, or Iraq 2003 - though many people do generalise about every issue from whatever their preferred analogy is.

The criteria of immediate threat; probability of success (rather unproven in this case, as it was in Kosovo at the time of the intervention), and legitimacy might make interventions which meet these tests relatively rare.



Thanks. On arms sales, yes. The following principles are broadly accepted by the major parties.
1. it is legitimate to have defence capability and a defence industry
2. that can involve exports
3. we have a moral responsibility to avoid selling arms likely to be used for "internal repression or external aggression"

The PM has suggested Bahrain and Libya show we got (3) wrong. Obviously true.

So I would propose both
(a) a ban/clear presumption against any non-democratic regime.
(b) some case-by-case way (use of FCO human rights reports, etc) to look at other risks.

I think the onus is very much on those who think (a) too stringent to show an alternative way to take principle (3) seriously in a way which would not have got Bahrain and Libya wrong. (I guess one could propose a version of (b) without making the distinction between authoritarian and democratic regimes: I think the distinction a useful one, and (b) would be much more likely to go wrong without it).

On Mark Pack's point: agree; this highlights that the double standard is not the primary fault. if one lets down the Czechs in 1938, it does not help much to make a virtue of consistency to similarly try to sell out the Poles in 1939. If one has failed to act in a Rwandan genocide, this would not make preventing a Bosnian genocide a bad idea for reasons of inconsistency.

alienfromzog said...

Excellent article.

The Whataboutery argument annoys me so much and it was good to see it so well deconstructed.

There is one caveat that shouldn't take away from the argument but should be said. It it true that sometimes the reasons for choosing not to act (and to act for that matter) are not always as good as they should be. Unfortunately self-interest - often in the form of oil seems to have too big an influence.

However, for me, the argument is as you put it:
1) What can we do?
2) Will doing that (in our best judgement) make things better or worse?

I am very proud of what Britain achieved in Sierra Leone and Kosova.


Richard Gadsden said...

Another criterion I would examine is the existence of an opposition. If there were to be an intervention in, say, Burma, then it's not clear who we would be helping. You can't just say "the Burmese people", when the regime has so successfully repressed all dissent that there really is no legitimate representative of the Burmese people.

It was the absence of such that was such a problem in the early part of the Iraq mission; once the Saddam Hussain armies had been defeated, we did not have the option of handing over to an alternative government.

While the Benghazi-based revolutionaries in Libya are hardly perfect, they have a much better claim to be the representatives of the Libyan people than anyone did in Iraq in 2003. Once Qaddafi has been defeated militarily (presuming that he is), then there will be no requirement for any extended occupation.

This is closely connected to your "what do those who we might want to support think we should do (and not do), taking very seriously their advice about what might help and hinder. The form that external solidarity takes should be shaped by advice from within." - if there isn't a real movement with a leadership, demonstrating mass support and capable of asking for or rejecting outside assistance, then there is little that can be done from the outside.

The only practical approach without a local revolutionary leadership would be to militarily occupy the country, setup a (temporary) colonial regime, establish the rule of law, and then slowly raise up local politicians, accustom the process of electoral competition, and progressively hand over power to the locally-elected. That probably means running the country for at least a decade.

That's the problem we'd have in Burma. In North Korea, there is at least the South to handover to - it's geopolitics (ie NK has nukes and also China doesn't want Korea reunified under Seoul) that is the problem there.

Matthew Rees said...

Patronising twaddle.

How can you talk about Libya and not mention Palestine where many more civilians have been killed and countless UN resolutions flouted. And to not mention the recent civil war in Ivory Coast is intellectual deceit. A pathetic article all round.

septicisle said...

This is a fatuous piece masked by the pretentious language used, knocking down as it does a whole series of straw men. I haven't seen anyone genuinely sceptical about our intervention bring the Ivory Coast or Burma into it. Bahrain is a different matter but not for the reasons you deal with. No one is arguing we ought to be intervening there to protect the protesters: what would be nice is some sort of consistency. Instead what we've had is the essential sacrificing of one uprising to "save" another, as the US has all but admitted. Hence the brutal, literal crushing of hope in Bahrain has been either ignored or criticised in the softest language possible. It remains to be seen what transpires in Yemen, but I'd think it doubtful that we'd allow the King there to fall with al-Qaida waiting in the wings to prosper in an even more unstable country, regardless of the massacre at the weekend.

To quote Paulinlincs, those sceptical, including myself are instead engaging in "blaming others in the Left for not thinking through the awfulness of everything properly", which is much nearer the truth. The real reason not to give the intervention full support is because no one has the slightest idea where this is going to end up leading. Unless we're going to act as the rebels personal air force, something not even slightly authorised by the UN resolution, the outcome at the moment looks like stalemate. It would be interesting for some who support the intervention fully to set out what they would like to see happen next, like Juan Cole has.

septicisle said...

I mean the president in Yemen obviously, not the King. Durrrr.

Sunder Katwala said...


The piece does not say there are no good or reasonable arguments against an intervention in Libya. Specific arguments about the risks of acting and not acting in this case are legitimate and important; but I wanted to argue specifically that complaints about not intervening in North Korea are weak or tangential.

Straw men? I don't claim all objections prioritise the whaddaboutery argument, but I had seen and heard references to all of these cases as reasons not to intervene before I wrote the piece.

Andrew Sullivan has brought in both Burma and indeed Congo too. (And Irrawaddy had a good discussion of Burma and the UN in the context of Libya, which I quoted, and clearly don't fail the test of not giving a toss about the example they are citing).

Ivory Coast and Bahrain are, in different ways, the most relevant comparisons but are perhaps not as well known cases. I saw more UK references to Zimbabwe - but Jeffrey Goldberg cited "Yemen, Ivory Coast and the big enchilada Iran to name three".

If it is the case that not intervening would have led to a significant massacre within this week/fortnight, there is a pragmatic lesser evil case for on balance supporting a not very well thought through intervention (the US has clearly not spent a long time doing this), and a stalemate, and then looking to the Arab League to mediate a political settlement over time in which the government can't win by massacre. In other words, we can't turn Libya into Geneva, but it might be a considerable advance on the counter-factual to turn it into something like Northern Ireland.

I am interested in the international community having the will and capacity to prevent and stop the worst cases of repression, and of building rule-based frameworks (such as the ICC, regional capacities, as well as other R2P approaches) to do so more consistently. I think the Libyan resolution - if this does not end disastrously and so, like the Somalian intervention, lead to a retreat - is a significant step up in the Responsibility to Protect principle.

One difficulty with the Bahrain analogy is that we are placing strong weight on local/regional actors - especially the Arab League - as providing legitimacy over Libya. There is a difference in Washington's approach to Bahrain/Saudi and Libya, but there is also a difference in the Arab League approach. Despite their intervention in Bahrain, that the Saudis are becoming much more nervous about the US and the west as fairweather friends - for not saving Mubarak and advising him to suppress the protests - is a welcome development, isn't it?

Galen10 said...

An excellent rejoinder to those on the left who shamefully oppose intervention in Libya Sunder; well done! It saddens me to see so many people coming up with "whatiffery" to justify doing nothing, as the comment threads on Liberal Conspiracy demonstrate.

Zio Bastone said...

Presumably those who attack straw men are wannabe cereal killers.

The most adult general arguments I have seen regarding what’s been happening are these.

Firstly there’s the Galloping Cat argument, that ‘liberal interventionism’, besides being irremediably tainted by Iraq, rarely works as expected. And ‘What’s the good / Of galloping about doing good / When angels stand in the path / And do not do as they should?’ (Scepticisle made a similar point.)

Secondly there’s the gunboat diplomacy argument. that there isn’t much of a gap, not even a very small one, between protecting innocent rebels from the Colonel and having yet another unacknowledged bash at regime change. If we’re going to have a pop at this week’s Mr Nasty then let’s at least be honest about what we’re doing. And let’s also be clear about our motives, which aren’t always humanitarian: ‘Which side are you on?’

And finally there’s the Die Lösung principle as an expression of neo-colonialism. It’s an attitude implicit, I think, in Richard Gadsden’s reference to the ‘Benghazi-based revolutionaries’ as ‘hardly perfect’.

Which is why the French novelist and activist Serge Quadruppani talks about an ‘anti-September 11’ in which there has been a genuine ‘eruption from below’. This is 1968 (a revolution), not 1989 (a trading opportunity) in other words. His remarks are addressed to the Left:

‘That the West and all the World Powers are trying to control this moment is obvious (though that doesn’t mean they are succeeding). That this moment is threatened by the intervention of the West … is equally obvious. The international intervention is a defeat for the Libyan revolution because the insurgents have had to seek protection ... from those same international powers that up until yesterday had done business with Gaddafi over oil and stopping the movement of migrants. …

‘In such a complex moment, however, to limit ourselves to seeing always and everywhere only the actions of the [international] powers would be ‘70s style old fashioned anti-imperialism which refuses to recognise the changes in course now for decades, amongst them the slow but inevitable decline of the USA.’

Zio Bastone said...

Presumably those who attack straw men are wannabe cereal killers.

There’s an article published today by the French novelist and activist Serge Quadruppani about the upheavals in the Arab world in general and Libya in particular. He calls them an ‘anti-September 11’ in which there has been a genuine ‘eruption from below’. So implicitly they are more like 1968 (ie a potential revolution) and not a lot like a 1989 style trading opportunity. His remarks are addressed to the Left from within the Left:

‘That the West and all the World Powers are trying to control this moment is obvious (though that doesn’t mean they are succeeding). That this moment is threatened by the intervention of the West … is equally obvious. The international intervention is a defeat for the Libyan revolution because the insurgents have had to seek protection ... from those same international powers that up until yesterday had done business with Gaddafi over oil and stopping the movement of migrants. …

‘In such a complex moment, however, to limit ourselves to seeing always and everywhere only the actions of the [international] powers would be ‘70s style old fashioned anti-imperialism, refusing to recognise the changes in progress now for decades, amongst them the slow but inevitable decline of the USA.’

septicisle said...

Sunder, the key problem I have is that this seems like the very thin end of the wedge. Where there is a prima facie case that genocide is happening, and we have a clear plan, not necessarily an "endgame" but at least a plan for how to put a stop to it, then intervention can clearly be justified. Regardless of what Gaddafi threatened Benghazi with last week, what is happening in Libya is a civil conflict which is a very long way from genocide. Even then I'd be willing to support intervention if we had a strategy for supporting the rebels, stopping Gaddafi from committing massacres and some sort of vision for what success looks like, but we don't have anything even approaching that either.

Responsibility to protect very quickly becomes as Simon Jenkins wrote last week an invitation for global mayhem, and through our intervention in Libya we seem to have set the bar for it alarmingly low. Clearly we're not going to be spending the next few years invading every tin pot dictatorship across the globe the second they left a finger against their own people, but we've set a precedent that others will quickly leap on as a pretext: you can imagine Russia claiming it has a responsibility to protect South Ossetia if there are ructions with Georgia again, just as China will if there's a violent uprising in Tibet. I fear we've gotten ourselves into a situation more analogous with Iraq in 1991 than Kosovo in 1999.

Galen10 said...

@ septicisle

The problem with your thesis is that it would be a monstrous injustice to restrict humanitarian intervention “only” to the narrowly defined circumstances you describe. Thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent civilians being massacred may not “technically” count as genocide, but it still deserved to be stopped. In the case of Libya it would have been much better if we had an “off the shelf” strategy for supporting the rebels, a detailed endgame, and a vision for what success looks like….. but we just didn’t.

The fairly shambolic nature of the response from the west, and the international community as a whole (and the fact that though shamefully belated it managed to avert the imminent catastrophe in Benghazi) shows that we have learnt little or nothing from Bosnia, Kossovo, Kurdistan, where intervention helped, still less from the many other areas where nothing effective was done, and we essentially abandoned people to their fate. If we are really sincere in our desire to stop authoritarian regimes butchering innocent civilians, it is essential that we realise that just because we cannot stop it in every case, we shouldn’t therefore not bother trying where we CAN make an impact.

If it can be done via the UN, that’s great… but what happens when China or Russia veto it? What happens when (as in Rwanda) the UN force is under resourced, poorly led and has it’s hands tied by rules of engagement not suited to the situation on the ground? Alternatively we can try and supply rebel groups with the materiel necessary to fight their attackers without UN or western troops on the ground. Argualbly this would have worked in e.g. Bosnia or Kossov… possibly even Libya; but it presupposes a modicum of organisation amongst the forces you are arming, and an eye on the future implications and some knowledge of the forces you are arming. In Libya there was no time, and the opposition are hardly a coherent, organised force. We can also supplement aid to rebels with NFZ’s, and potentially attacking the oppresors heavy weapons and armour on the ground. Such action would have saved thousands of lives in Bosnia and Kossovo if it had been taken earlier, and would potentially have unseated Gaddafi if it had been done weeks rather than days ago.

There are risks in any strategy of course.. but there are also risks in doing nothing. We can’t let fear of what “might” happen elsewhere stop us doing the right thing now in parts of the world where we can help.