Learning from Libya

My position on intervention in Libya has been problematic from the beginning. I want Libya’s rebels to succeed; on their own, they manifestly cannot, and worse, in the absence of intervention, they seem to face extermination. But I am also frustrated with an approach to world events in which war seems to be the only solution—as if the U.S. military is some kid’s hammer and all problems are nails.[1]

Juan Cole, who favors the intervention, has published what I think is his most thoughtful piece on the problem to date. He argues that the NATO effort must eventually succeed, that Qaddafi’s capabilities are gradually being degraded, and that catastrophe has been averted. He also addresses the substance of much critique of the operation, writing,

War is a horrible thing, and I lived through long-term urban fighting in Lebanon in the mid-to-late 1970s. But there are other things that are sometimes worse than war. This intervention was called for by the Arab League, and has a United Nations Security Council resolution behind it, so it is legal and legitimate in the tradition of collective security. (I don’t disagree with those who argue that it would have been better for President Obama to get congressional authorization).[2]

There are some caveats which I need to insert here. First, the Arab League consists principally of governments which are also likely targets in any pan-Arab uprising, governments which profoundly oppress their people. Second, the United Nations Security Council has devolved from an arena for a Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union to an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Third, the U.S. hasn’t declared a war since World War II; Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution allocates that authority to Congress, but Article II, Section 2 states “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States” without specifying who may call the military into service, what they may do when so called, or what constitutes “actual service.” The intervention may thus be “legal” according to international law and dubious under the U.S. Constitution, but for legality to be persuasive, it must reside in legitimacy, and in fact this intervention’s legitimacy derives from humanitarian concerns. The humanitarian concerns of the moment weigh heavily in favor of intervention; the humanitarian concerns of the longer term, in which one war leads inexorably to another, weigh against. Cole

think[s] there is actually some benefit to the war not ending quickly with a swift Eastern conquest of the West with NATO backing. That may be what happens in the end. But in my view it would be preferable for the elites in Tripoli to gradually be pushed back and surrounded and put under such pressure that they turn on Qaddafi and declare for Free Libya. That way you don’t have a permanent group of losers, like the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, who would tend to make trouble in the medium term if not the long term.

In the meantime, we must remember that people are being killed. The introduction of military drones recalls calamities in Afghanistan and Pakistan;[3] presumably these will recur in Libya. Eugene Robinson points out that air power is insufficient;[4] which accords with my own recollection that air power—while offering tactical advantages—has always worked strategically to massacre civilians, with limited military impact. I don’t know if that will be the case here, but the precedents of Hanoi, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iraq, and Afghanistan should surely inspire caution. Robinson concludes,

Realism in foreign policy is neither good nor bad. Ultimately, it is inevitable. The United States and its allies are not willing to seize control of events in Libya and the region. Unless this changes, it is cruelty, not kindness, to pretend otherwise.[5]

Cole, perhaps recklessly, rejoins that “those who complain about the course of the Libya intervention are being impatient or cynical.”[6] What I will suggest is that all this is about symptoms rather than the disease.

The disease is power. Qaddafi refuses to relinquish it. NATO employs it against him and against the Taliban in Afghanistan. At home, Barack Obama joins a multitude of politicians who win office not to uphold principles but to “pragmatically” surrender them in the name of “compromise” and the so-called “reality of governing,” abandoning any quest for justice and undermining any moral reason for holding office, leaving only a raw grasping for power. The Libyan intervention and much of the most-frequently told history of humanity is about a contest for power as an end in itself.

Even the vast accumulation of wealth by a few in the U.S., particularly by the top 0.1 percent,[7] should be seen not only in terms of luxury and comfort but as a striving for freedom of action. The ultra-wealthy can travel the world, dine at the finest restaurants, commission vast bunkers to secure their own safety in the event of an uprising against them, and most importantly, influence or evade the government policies that might otherwise restrict them. In this paradigm, “because all human beings are subject to necessity [for the sustenance of life], they are entitled to violence toward others; violence is the prepolitical act of liberating oneself from the necessity of life for the freedom of world.”[8] Power is thus inseparable from violence; while Hannah Arendt saw it as “prepolitical,” David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel define structural violence in terms that she might recognize as the “necessity of life,” from which freedom must be sought. I quote this passage perhaps too often:

Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on. When people starve to death, or even go hungry, a kind of violence is taking place. Similarly, when humans suffer from diseases that are preventable, when they are denied decent education, affordable housing, opportunities to work, play, raise a family, and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, a kind of violence is occurring, even if no bullets are shot or clubs wielded. A society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being, whether because of religion, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, or some other social reason. Structural violence is a serious form of social oppression. And it is regrettably widespread and often unacknowledged.[9]

Anarchism strikes some as an extreme position. For the most part in the developed world, humans have known no other way of ordering their affairs but through authoritarianism for hundreds if not thousands of years. At the same time we teach our children to share, we socialize ourselves—and them—to expect others to be greedy and we understand authority as a necessary restraint upon that greed while failing to consider that those who exercise that authority are themselves socialized in a culture that increasingly celebrates greed.

Some people see capitalism as an ogre that insatiably demands inequality and exploitation. They blame capitalism for all our ills, pointing to corporations that pollute our planet and is regard the welfare of employees, host communities, and even their shareholders. But it’s not capitalism that’s the ogre; it’s the underlying dominator beliefs, structures, and habits we’ve inherited.[10]

Riane Eisler correctly problematizes authoritarian social structures. Unfortunately, in this passage, she fails to recognize that capitalism profoundly reflects authoritarianism, that any economic system of exchange inherently privileges whomever has the most power to decline a deal for what ever reason. Ideally, capitalism might function admirably if everyone was equal and no one ever gained any advantage or leverage over anyone else. But in any real world, once advantage, even the entirely arbitrary sort of sheer random luck, and disadvantage exist—and these are the motivations for competition—capitalism functions to magnify discrepancies. And ultimately, it must corrupt any system of authority, as we see in the United States, where vast amounts of money are required to purchase air time on mass media as a price of admission to even the possibility of political power.

To reduce violence, therefore, we need a system that diminishes rather than enhances discrepancies. We need a system of cooperation rather than of competition. The rise of Ayn Rand-style capitalist libertarianism, which while correctly understanding political hierarchy, fails to recognize economic hierarchy, inevitably must lead to further violence, violence that can only blur the boundary between the physical which Arendt recognized and the structural which Barash and Webel recognize.

A part of my conundrum in Libya is that even the more “democratic” forms of government an intervention hopes to introduce will replicate the inequalities of the old system, that lopping off the Qaddafis at the top can only temporarily reduce the discrepancies that produce violence. Cole hopes to avoid creating a “permanent group of losers” in Libya; in order for him to be correct, there must be social mobility. But what we see in the United States, the country that most celebrates capitalism, is that the barriers to social mobility are vast, that we have “permanent losers” in this country, and that the wealthy do everything possible to exclude them,[11] including through the use of the criminal injustice system.[12] Robinson asked

Seriously, as the Libya operation is now being conducted, what’s the point? The intervention surely saved many lives by halting Gaddafi’s forces just hours before they would have swept into the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. But now the conflict has devolved into a bloody stalemate in which Gaddafi clearly has the upper hand. How many Libyan rebels and civilians will die in the coming weeks, months, perhaps years? When we look back at the eventual human toll, what will we have accomplished?[13]

Robinson’s assumption seems to be that the West should commit itself more forcefully; he adopts the neoconservative presumption that force can promulgate capitalist democracy throughout the world. I think that assumption is wrong. But his questions are right.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “An eye for an eye in Libya,” DisUnitedStates.org, February 21, 2011, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=2105; David Benfell, “Armchair warriors thumping their chests,” DisUnitedStates.org, March 31, 2011, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=2268; David Benfell, “Armchair warriors find a mudpit,” DisUnitedStates.org, April 3, 2011, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=2278; David Benfell, “No refuge at home,” DisUnitedStates.org, April 17, 2011, http://disunitedstates.org/?p=3379
  2. [2]Juan Cole, “Free Libyan fighters exult in small Victories, as US begins Drone Strikes,” Informed Comment, April 22, 2011, http://www.juancole.com/2011/04/free-libyan-fighters-exult-in-small-victories-as-us-begins-drone-strikes.html
  3. [3]Mathieu Rabechault, “US drones: weapons of choice in overseas wars,” Google.com, April 22, 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hF3C-S92bEb8wj8V8pX8gIdky68w?docId=CNG.1c90e35dcf8cd5714333aa0e426df297.351
  4. [4]Eugene Robinson, “Field manual for despots,” Washington Post, April 21, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/field-manual-for-despots/2011/04/21/AFe8TxKE_story.html
  5. [5]Robinson, “Field manual for despots.”
  6. [6]Cole, “Free Libyan fighters exult in small Victories.”
  7. [7]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  8. [8]Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), 31.
  9. [9]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002), 7.
  10. [10]Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007), 117.
  11. [11]Thomas M. Shapiro, ed., Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005).
  12. [12]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  13. [13]Robinson, “Field manual for despots.”

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