Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit

7 Mar

Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit

What is immediately striking about the bipartisan call in Washington for a no-fly zone and air strikes designed to help rebel forces in Libya is the absence of any concern with the relevance of international law or the authority of the United Nations. None in authority take the trouble to construct some kind of legal rationalization. The ‘realists’ in command, and echoed by the mainstream media, do not feel any need to provide even a legal fig leaf before embarking on aggressive warfare.

It should be obvious that a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace is an act of war, as would be, of course, contemplated air strikes on fortifications of the Qadaffi forces. The core legal obligation of the UN Charter requires member states to refrain from any use of force unless it can be justified as self-defense after a cross-border armed attack or mandated by a decision of the UN Security Council. Neither of these conditions authorizing a legal use of force is remotely present, and yet the discussion proceeds in the media and Washington circles as if the only questions worth discussing pertain to feasibility, costs, risks, and a possible backlash in the Arab world. The imperial mentality is not inclined to discuss the question of legality, much less show behavioral respect for the constraints embedded in international law.

Cannot it not be argued that in situations of humanitarian emergency ‘a state of exception’ exists allowing an intervention to be carried out by a coalition of the willing provided it doesn’t make the situation worse? Was not this the essential moral/political rationale for NATO’s Kosovo War in 1999, and didn’t that probably spare the majority Albanian population in Kosovo from a bloody episode of ethnic cleansing at the hands of the embattled Serb occupiers? Hard cases make bad precedents, as is well known. But even bad precedents need to find a justification in the circumstances of a new claimed situation of claimed exception, or else there would a strong reinforcement for the public impression that the powerful act as they will without even pausing to make a principled argument for a proposed departure from the normal legal regime of restraint.

With respect to Libya, we need to take account of the fact that the Qaddafi government, however distasteful on humanitarian grounds, remains the lawful diplomatic representative of a sovereign state, and any international use of force even by the UN, much less a state or group of states, would constitute an unlawful intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, prohibited by Article 2(7) of the UN Charter unless expressly authorized by the Security Council as essential for the sake of international peace and security. Beyond this, there is no assurance that an intervention, if undertaken, would lessen the suffering of the Libyan people or bring to power a regime more respectful of human rights and dedicated to democratic participation.

The record of military intervention during the last several decades is one of almost unbroken failure if either the human costs or political outcomes are taken into proper account. Such interventionary experience in the Islamic world during the last fifty years makes it impossible to sustain the burden of persuasion that would be needed to justify an anti-regime intervention in Libya in some ethically and legally persuasive way.






There are also serious credibility concerns. As has been widely noted in recent weeks, the United States has had no second thoughts about supporting oppressive regimes throughout the region for decades, and is widely resented for this role by the various anti-regime movements. Qadaffi’s crimes against humanity were never a secret, and certainly widely known by European and American intelligence services. Even high profile liberal intellectuals in Britain and the United States welcomed invitations to Tripoli during the last several years, apparently without a blink of conscience, accepting consulting fees and shamelessly writing positive assessments that praised the softening authoritarianism in Libya. Perhaps, that is what Joseph Nye, one of the most prominent of these recent good will visitors to Tripoli, would call a private use of ‘smart power,’ commending Qadaffi for renouncing his anti-West posture, for making deals for oil and weapons, and most of all for abandoning what some now say was at most a phantom nuclear weapons program.

Some Beltway pundits are insisting on talk shows that the interventionists after faltering in the region want to get on the right side of history before it is too late. But what is the right side of history in Libya seems quite different than it is in Bahrain or Jordan, and for that matter throughout the region. History seems to flow according to the same river currents as does oil! Elsewhere, the effort is to restore stability with minimal concessions to the reformist demands, hoping to get away with a political touch up that is designed to convert the insurrectionists of yesterday into the bureaucrats of tomorrow.

Mahmoud Mamdani has taught us to distinguish ‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims,’ now we are being instructed to distinguish ‘good autocrats’ from ‘bad autocrats.’ By this definition, only the pro-regime elements in Libya and Iran qualify as bad autocrats, and their structures of must at least be shaken if they cannot be broken. What distinguishes these regimes? It does not seem to be that their degree of oppressiveness is more pervasive and severe than is the case for the others. Other considerations give more insight: access and pricing of oil, arms sales, security of Israel, relationship to the neoliberal world economy.

What I find most disturbing is that despite the failures of counterinsurgency thinking and practice, American foreign policy gurus continue to contemplate intervention in post-colonial societies without scruples or the slightest show of sensitivity to historical experience, not even the recognition that national resistance in the post-colonial world has consistently neutralized the advantages of superior hard power deployed by the intervening power. The most that has been heard is a whispered expression of concern by the relatively circumspect Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, that it may not be prudent at this time for the United States to intervene in yet another Islamic country. The absence of any learning from Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq is startling, underscored by the glorification of General David Petraeus who rose to military stardom soon after he was credited with refurbishing the army’s approach to counterinsurgency, which is the Pentagon jargon for pro-regime intervention. Major current illustrations are Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other places in the Middle East. Technically speaking, the proposed intervention in Libya is not an instance of counterinsurgency, but is rather a pro-insurgency intervention, as has also been the case with the covert destabilization efforts that continue in Iran.

It is easier to understand the professional resistance to learning from past failure on the part of military commanders as it is their life work, but the civilian politicians deserve not a whit of sympathy. Among the most ardent advocates of intervention in Libya are the last Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, the supposedly independent Joe Lieberman, and the Obama Democrat John Kerry. It seems that many of the Republicans focused on the deficit although cutting public expenditures punishes the poor at a time of widespread unemployment and home foreclosures would not mind ponying up countless billions to finance acts of war in Libya. There exists a worrying readiness to throw money and weapons at an overseas conflict, seemingly as to show that imperial geopolitics is not yet dead despite the growing evidence of American decline.

In the end, I suppose we have to hope that those more cautious imperial voices that base their opposition to intervention on feasibility concerns carry the day!

What I am mainly decrying here in the Libyan debate are three kinds of policy failure:

(1) the exclusion of international law and the United Nations from relevance to national debates about international uses of force;

(2) the absence of respect for the dynamics of self-determination in societies of the South;

(3) the refusal to heed the ethics and politics appropriate for a post-colonial world order that is being de-Westernized and is becoming increasingly multi-polar.


17 Responses to “Will We Ever Learn? Kicking the Intervention Habit”

  1. Ray Joseph Cormier March 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    This part of your excellent article needs reiteration.

    It seems that many of the Republicans focused on the deficit although cutting public expenditures punishes the poor at a time of widespread unemployment and home foreclosures would not mind ponying up countless billions to finance acts of war in Libya. There exists a worrying readiness to throw money and weapons at an overseas conflict, seemingly as to show that imperial geopolitics is not yet dead despite the growing evidence of American decline.

    Michael Moore gave an excellent speech to the Wisconsin protesters on Saturday or Sunday. It’s a speech with themes I hope more high profile people speak.


    • Richard Falk March 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

      I agree. It is a matter of connecting dots in ways that the media and politicians discourage, and Michael Moore has made a career of making these suppressed connections.

  2. Ray Joseph Cormier March 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    His speech was probably more interesting to me seeing it Sunday because when he got the people to chant “we have had it!” at the 19 minute point, I saw it as a variation on the theme “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” from the 1976 movie ‘Network’ featured in my Blog I just posted Saturday. One Spirit! Many different people!

    For those who have never seen the movie ‘Network’ released36 years ago in the Spirit of ’76, two of the most important scenes from that movie are in my Blog article. Just click on the links and only with the benefit of hindsight, can it be seen as pointing to these days.

    BTW Professor, I like the images you’ve inserted into your reports.

      • Kinhide MUSHAKOJI March 7, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

        Dear Richard:

        I am in full agreement and support all the points you make in this article on the illegality of the attempt against Qadafi for whom I have no sympathy from before this event.

        I agree with the international legal and UN institutional problem but wish to draw all our attention on your other two remarks.
        “(2) the absence of respect for the dynamics of self-determination in societies of the South;
        (3) the refusal to heed the ethics and politics appropriate for a post-colonial world order that is being de-Westernized and is becoming increasingly multi-polar.”

        The UN Human Rights Council is presently studying the newly proposed concept of the Gight to Peace of the People.
        This right is proposed by Latn American countries whose concern is eactly the need to establish in cristal clear terms the right of all people in the non-hegemonic parts of the world not to have their rights to live in peace violated by hegemonic interventions in the name of the “oblication” of humanitarean intervention attributed to the so-called “indurtrial democracies”. The Lybian case must be discussed in the context of this new emerging concept.

        Kinhide Mushakoji

  3. Kinhide MUSHAKOJI March 8, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    It seems that my preveous “Reply” was not recorded. I was saying that I fully agree but think the second and third problems were very important. Thye both refer to the right to respect by external hegemonic forces to intervene unilaterally without due invitation. This is one key aspects of the Right to Peace now debated at the Human Rights Council.
    Kinhide Mushakoji

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell March 8, 2011 at 6:38 am #

    Professor Falk,

    I’ve assembled a variety of arguments on possible “humanitarian intervention” in Libya (especially those concerning the imposition of a no-fly zone) at the Ratio Juris blog should you and/or your readers be interested: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/03/humanitarian-ie-military-andor.html

    Best wishes,

  5. Marie Edwards March 10, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    Hi there,

    Actually I have been to Libya many, many times. I speak, read and write Arabic. The fact is that Libya has the highest living standard in Africa, schools, universities and health care is free of charge and maintenance for housing is very low. The women are treated 100% equal and literacy is 95%. It is a socialist country; meaning oil and gas are nationalized.

    To the negative, I know, that a lot of corruption is going on in Libya, unfortunately. But Libya has 30 major tribes and many, many smaller tribes. Honor and tribes are important in Libya. Believe me, it is not easy to hold all the tribes together. I do not know how many times I have seen the tribal leaders from the different parts of Libya coming to Sirte and discussing politics and problems they have.

    I actually do not see a public uprising, but armed rebels, maybe 2,000 maybe 10,000. What is with the other 6 million people? No one writes about it, but Muammar Al-Qathafi is well respected by most of his people.

    Anyway, I like your article in some respects and not in others, but at least it is measured.

    Marie Edwards
    New York

    • Ray Joseph Cormier March 10, 2011 at 6:58 pm #

      According to CNN, the Libyan crisis is the only thing happening in this world and the news/propaganda is if the US and the West decide to take over the high quality Libyan Oil, we, the people, will sheepishly go along with the war action without a whimper – until the consequences are felt for our silence being consent.

      Thank you, Marie Edwards, for your contribution to this now enlightened perspective of this discussion. Checking your new information, there is a better universal health care system that is totally free for all Libyans. The US doesn’t have that.

      There is free University Education. There is an 85 to 90% literacy rate, and women are not relegated to 2nd place status.

      Until this flareup, the Libyan economy was booming, attracting many Egyptians and other Africans to flock there where the work and the money was. Our media did show us the video of all those foreign workers trying to flee the increasing violence.

      AS evil as the Western media is making Gadaffi to look, doing some independent research, he has been sharing the wealth with his people.

      We know many Americans hate the word Socialist seeing the word as evil, not even understanding the letter or the Spirit in all it’s dimensions. They prefer Dictators who keep the wealth for themselves and the Americans in those far off lands Americans don’t know anything about or what their power is doing?

      I now see if the West “intervenes” the violence will spread throughout the Middle East destroying the hope of the peaceful, Democratic revolution.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier March 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

        My Spirit moved me to copy and paste Marie’s comment & my reply and send send it to the Party Leaders in the Canadian Parliament and the TV News and Spin leaders.

        Ray Cormier (ray032@sympatico.ca)
        Sent: March 11, 2011 3:05:31 AM
        To: info@gg.ca; pm@pm.gc.ca; ignatm@parl.gc.ca; laytoj@parl.gc.ca; ducepg@parl.gc.ca
        Bcc: politics@cbc.ca; power-play@ctv.ca; national@cbc.ca; news@ctv.ca; exchange@cbc.ca; connect@cbc.ca
        Honourable People,

        If this be the Truth, then live it.

        IN my CV, on the 1st historic day of TV cameras being allowed in the Canadian House of Commons, I was sitting in the front row of the Public Gallery wearing a gag over my mouth reading, “Fear of The Truth”

        National TV did not show the Security guards were punching me, and pulling my hair to get me out as I held on to the brass railing as long as I could without making a sound. Plenty of time for the cameras to pick it up. Print news media record the incident.
        Ray Joseph Cormier

      • dadombkr March 21, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

        I think that the world be be a much better place if there was absolutely NO understanding that qaddafi is the legal anything let alone the grand poobah of the sovereign libyan state. did he not steal power like so many other crazed power-hungry maniacs (many who have also bestowed their benevolence from their stolen caches the sovereign states riches. when will the world ‘understand’ that the likes of qaddafi, assad, kim iljong and many others are no more then puffed up crime lords sitting on their gold and enslaving those they have to in order to maintain power. the minute he is dead the world will see the huge collective relief and anger harboured against this powerful fool much like mubarak, and hopefully assad, jong, mugabi, faud, etc. etc

  6. Wilson Chiquito March 27, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    Very good written article. It will be helpful to everyone who usess it, including yours truly :). Keep up the good work – looking forward to more posts.


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