Sending the Wrong Message

I’ll drop this whole military angle very soon, I promise. There are plenty of other boring topics to consider:)

The parallels between the current “humanitarian intervention” in Libya and the 1999 air war in Kosovo continue to pile up – unbenknownst to the media so far as I can tell (seriously, its like the Clinton administration is a distant memory to most analysts). I remember way back then the popular criticism of Washington and its European allies that is being rehashed today: “Why intervene in Serbia/Libya and not country x, y and z when they are facing massacres on a similar scale?” A valid criticism on the surface, though I don’t feel it holds up under even the most superficial examination.

Here’s that superficial examination.

Forgive me if this sounds insensitive, but I see the case for selective humanitarian intervention as being analogous to speeding (though obviously the crimes that would welcome intervention are on a much larger scale). We do not expect that the laws regarding speeding will be implemented with absolute equality – the cops can’t be everywhere, so some offenders will escape.  That some are not prosecuted for their violations of the law does not make the law any less valid or the application of it in certain cases inherently less equal. In the case of humanitarian intervention, that it is not undertaken in certain countries where human rights violations take place on a massive scale does not on its own reflect poorly on the sincerity of those states willing to act to establish human security in a country that has essentially surrendered its sovereignty by its inability or unwillingness to govern in a manner that respects the dignity of its populace (there are plenty of otherwise to test the sincerity of an intervention, for one see my earlier post “There is no humanity at 30,000 feet”).

Selective application of humanitarian intervention does, however, send several mixed messages.

Message #1 – “We’ll only use force against our enemies.”

Bahrain and Yemen are perfect examples of this message. While the scale of violence in both countries has not yet reached the level that’s been reported in Libya, both governments have been detaining, beating and even shooting their citizens.

In Bahrain at least 13 have been killed while hundreds have been wounded, with many being denied medical assistance.  While in Yemen, 52 people were murdered by the military this weekend alone as President Saleh clings more desperately to his 32 year old rule.

Why doesn’t the West intervene in either of these countries who, like Gaddafi, are using state violence against peaceful protesters?

Bahrain is host to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and serves as a key installation for American military reach in the region, while the Sunni-dominated monarchy has been able to check the possible expansion of Iranian influence by cowing its Shiite majority population. Bahrain has called for its own intervention, inviting 1,000 Saudi troops to assist in quashing the protesters.

Yemen has essentially been a failed state for some time, a condition that al Qaeda has been able to exploit by establishing a somewhat highly effective wing there (this might be overstated by the media). President Saleh has been quite helpful to the Americans in the quasi-war they have been fighting in Yemen, a relationship they couldn’t bank on continuing with some unknown successor should Saleh fall. Saleh’s heavihandedness has received only mute criticism so far from Washington. The true test will come if the country dissolves into (another) civil war, as is becoming increasingly likely this week.

Message #2 “We would help but you don’t have anything of value.”

Libya doesn’t have much of value (maybe 2 percent of the world’s oil at most) but there is an appreciable threat of Libya being in disarray to the two nascent democracies on its borders, Egypt and Tunisia. Plus, as some have argued, the Europeans aren’t too keen on absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees that follow in the wake of Gaddafi’s indiscriminate assault.

Sorry Ivory Coast, Darfur, and Kyrgyzstan. If you wanted help you should have established your country closer to xenophobes or put oil under your surface.

Message #3 “We only intervene where there will be a minimal cost in our blood.”

Since the June 2009 presidential “elections”, Iran has been beating, shooting, hanging and disappearing peaceful demonstrators and reformist politicians. They also have a large military that has been able to project itself into Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied territories almost at will. Even a limited action against Tehran would result in massive repercussions. So the West will continue to pick its fights with the Third World.

Message #4 “WMDs aren’t such a bad idea if you’re a tyrant.”

This is related to Message #3. In 2003, Moammar Gaddafi had voluntarily given up his nuclear weapons program, perhaps for reasons that are more complicated than the fear of becoming the next Iraq, as Bush supporters often gloat. Given the events since Friday, that might have been a mistake. As Steven Taylor at “Outside the Beltway” observes: “if he had actually acquired just one nuclear weapon, the current actions would likely not be taking place”. If you were Iran or North Korea, how quickly would you be willing to trade in that ace up your sleeve now?

The implications for the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya are obviously difficult to weigh, despite my best efforts above. A true measure of the impact of the decision to punish Gaddafi while ignoring other criminals of comparable viciousness will take some time.

What does seem clear is that the decision to avoid intervening militarily in the countries represented in the four “Messages” above does seem to me to be rational even if it is not just. It is democracies who are fighting these battles and doing so for an abstract ideal (again, if that ideal is in fact sincere). When human life is on the line this justification will be unpopular to a domestic electorate. Call that view cynical if you want, but it is true. The decision to intervene in Libya, and the method for doing so, was made not cause its easy, but because it is the easiest to sell.

What I mainly hoped to convey was the sense that any application of the use of force, regardless of the ideals behind it (the sincerity of those being a separate issue), is fraught with complexities. I do believe in the idea behind humanitarian intervention, however we’ve never seen its application in an ideal case.  The incredible complexities inherent with each new crisis that may warrant such intervention suggest that we never will.

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