On How We Go To War

Amid all the frantic late night comments about the UN resolution to finally act in Libya, this tweet from @techsoc stood out:

All intervention is risky & w/ great downsides. A non-intervention is also an intervention; letting Gaddafi kill using weapons we sold.

I think this an interesting companion thought to Sunder Katwala’s bolshy piece on the subject of whattaboutery (a topic Johann Hari previously dealt with in this hardy perennial). Sunder explains why it is worth intervening in Libya when we might not do so elsewhere. First, there has to be a clear and present humanitarian crisis (this is not present in most examples of despicable oppression, a small mercy). Second, intervention has to be possible and practical. This generally means the support and assistance of major regional players like the Arab League or African Union, who are notoriously lethargic. And third, the intervention requires a legitimacy, again related to what important external stakeholders think, but also what those inside the country ask for. These three checkboxes provide a case for what Sunder calls contextual universalism. It matters – at least to me – because it articulates why I had a gut feeling that the Iraq war was wrong, and the current intervention is right. This is despite the fact that the documented brutality of Saddam Hussein was ever bit as bad as that of Colonel Gaddafi.
The cautious approach is clearly a response to the bungling of Iraq. I watched some of the collegiate House of Commons debate on the issue yesterday, and most of the contributions, from Nicholas Soames to John McDonnell, were infused with the considerations that Sunder lays out. This approach to Foreign policy – the need for practicality and legitimacy, the need to be seen to be going to war for the right reasons – is obviously influenced by how unsuccessful the hawkish and shameless approach of Bush/Blair turned out to be. in 2006 I wrote in this space how protest actually serves to influence future policy more than current policy. I quoted Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads, who wrote:

… someone has to be called to account or the next batch of power-mad bastards – here or abroad – will think they can get away with exactly the same thing.

Well, Tony Blair was not forced kicking and screaming from office in the way Tim hoped. Nevertheless, the way the British and American Governments have acted during this current crisis is telling. It is clear that they have been profoundly affected by the uproar we caused last time. David Cameron is rightly being praised for his handling of the crisis, but his course of action was defined by the parameters set for him by recent history. And those parameters were set by us, the awkward squad of protesters and dissenting bloggers. For that, I think we can claim some credit.


I did not see The Andrew Marr Show but @DrEvanHarris did:

Shami points out Blair Iraq effect coming home to roost. No public appetite for deploying ground troops even in humanitarian cause. #marr

4 Replies to “On How We Go To War”

  1. So we are stopping arabs killing arabs by killing the other arabs. There is nothing special about one set, other than that they live nearer Egypt. And Egypt is why this is happening at all.
    We are getting involved in a collapsing side show, The Last Bow of the Dictator. Featuring imperial forces.
    If Tripoli doesn’t want to get rid of Gaddafi, perhaps we should be more crcumspect.

    1. I don’t think you can speak for “Tripoli” – there was plenty of protest there a couple of weeks ago, no? It was just the easiest place to quash insurrection too.
      Also, I personally don’t have much truck with this “Arabs vs Arabs” distinction. I know the ethnicity of the people is important when considering the practicalities (see the point about the Arab League and the African Union in the OP) but that’s not a reason to care less, PR suggest that some human beings count for less, when we do have an opportunity to prevent a massacre.

  2. As Egypt proved, if enough people want you to go, you don’t need military intervention. That doesn’t mean it won’t be bloody; juts means it doesn’t need third party intervention.
    The lack of distinction is a serious issue – it means that the “rebels” could change their minds or fracture into Benghazi-pro-Gaddafi or Tripoli-anti-Gaddafi with impunity. Or rather it would matter, except that the only reason for all this is regime change.

  3. I can see why this intervention may be justified. However, does it not leave you feeling uneasy that only 3 countries signed up to it – what are their motivations and why are we the world’s police? While I believe DC is a nice chap, and probably went into politics for good reasons, I can’t help but feel that all politicians at the top are under the influence of greater powers and thus any decisions they make are not purely for ‘humanitarian’ reasons. I also fear that we’re going to get stuck in a stalemate for many months at a time when we can’t afford it.

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