Another War of Jenkins' Ear

Resist The Pointless

Posts Tagged ‘Iraq

Today’s Stupid Anti-Intervention Argument

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Comes, not so surprisingly, from FDL. Jon Walker:

According to the Obama administration, imposing a no fly zone doesn’t count as war. Nor does launching long-range smart missiles against a sovereign country or using high altitude bombers. Apparently, even using low-flying, heavily armed, ground-attack aircraft to hit a foreign country’s ground forces or providing direct air support to a rebel army count as war, either.

I’m curious just how far this “as long as American troops are technically in the air it isn’t actually a war” logic can be stretched. Is there specific altitude threshold, or is it as long as our armed forces don’t physically touch the ground that it isn’t a war? Do helicopters count? Do ground-hugging flying armed drones count?

From here, it gets more silly. A few points from reality:

First, every nation-state is sovereign; it’s inherent in the definition. The question is when that sovereignty ends or becomes over-riden by another principle.

Second, the theory behind the United Nations Charter and article 42 in particular is that it is possible that humanitarian violations can inherently cause a loss of sovereignty. I notice there were no major complaints when Obama said that Gaddafi or other dictators had lost the right to rule. That was not respective of sovereignty either. When it does not suit him, Walker ignores issues of sovereignty and instead claims the US keeps dictators in power. And you’ll be happy to know he’s never written on Bahrain or Yemen. Are those leaders sovereign? What about in Syria? It’s easy to say a country is sovereign if you have no idea what that means or when it ends. This is because nowadays we understand sovereignty comes, generally, from the populace, even if not directly through the democratic process. So yes, Gaddafi sending his army to the edge of the city and credibly threatening a massacre would certainly have to have some effect on sovereignty. If you disagree with that, you’re basically disagreeing with all progress in international law the past 150 years.

Third, it’s not the air attack that makes this not a war – that simply makes casualties far less likely which buttresses public opinion (see Mogadishu). A war can be by any one or a combination of at land, war, or sea. Whether action is a war is determined pro forma by the process leading to it, not by the fact that weapons are used. When Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles on (allegedly) terrorist locations or into Iraq, was he declaring war? What about when Clinton intervened in Haiti or Kosovo? And maybe all of these were terrible tactical decisions (or maybe all brilliant) – that’s not the point. But did they amount to war? No, even if the people participating in the actions could not tell the difference. A lot of smart people have thought about when the war powers clause ought be invoked; none have been this glib about it.



Written by John Whitehouse

March 29, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Why Is Iraq the bar for Libya?

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Following a post by Peter Bergen, Matt Yglesias asks:

Is “less misguided than the invasion of Iraq” really a reasonable standard for policy to aspire to? I agree that this should turn out better than Iraq did. But will it turn out better than Somalia? Does it represent a reasonable allocation of resources? “Better than Iraq” is a very low bar for a foreign policy initiative to pass.

I agree, that’s a low bar. But there’s a reason Bergen said that: people are comparing it to Iraq and Afghanistan as a reason why it’s a flawed idea. So proving it’s better than Iraq does not justify the actions, but it certainly does serve to disprove the analogy.

And once we’ve dropped the false comparisons (or at least the shrill ones – obviously to some extent Iraq does inform Libya), it’s easier to determine if it’s a good idea or not.

Written by John Whitehouse

March 21, 2011 at 10:00 am

Answering Rhetorical Questions on Libya

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Andrew Sullivan asks a whole bunch of questions without actually waiting around for answers:

The president’s speech was disturbingly empty. There are, it appears, only two reasons the US is going to war, without any Congressional vote, or any real public debate. The first is that the US  cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place. Yet we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly – if less noisily – what Qaddafi is doing. Obama made no attempt to reconcile these inconsistencies because, one suspects, there is no rational reconciliation to be made.

Secondly, the president argued that the ghastly violence in Libya is destabilizing the region, and threatening world peace. Really? More than Qaddafi’s meddling throughout Africa for years? More than the brutal repression in Iran? And even if it is destabilizing, Libya is not, according to the Obama administration itself, a “vital national interest”. So why should the US go to war over this?

None of this makes any sense, except as an emotional response to an emergency.

Instead of seriously exploring possible rational explanations for the questions he raises (even if he disagrees with those reasons), Sullivan just calls the President an emotional wreck. This, of course, coming from someone so enraptured by the Iranian protests that he demanded his blog change color to show solidarity, as if that alone would mean one thing at all to any person anywhere  in the world.

So here’s the answer to Sullivan’s questions:

Yes, Libya is really destabilizing the region. Apparently even though he’s been live blogging this for weeks, Sullivan has missed the ongoing refugee nightmare, particularly on the Tunisian border. This is a serious problem that very much does destabilize the region.

And yes, it destabilizes it in a more acute and immediate manner than the repression Iranian protests (which, though tragic and against international norms, was an internal matter) or “meddling” – which is just vague enough that I really don’t know what Sullivan is referring to. Was Lockerbie “meddling”? I have no idea. Is Sullivan referring to the Libyan conflict with Chad that actually did involve French troops and American supplies at one point? I have no idea. Is Sullivan referring to the Libyan-Egyptian war in 1977 that would have destabilized the region had Gaddafi not retreated? I have no idea. Is Sullivan referring to Gaddafi supporting dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bedel Bokassa and if so how would that add up to regional instability rather than instability without a nation-state? I have no idea. Sullivan only refers to Africa.

If you want to argue the President is being overly emotional, perhaps one should thoroughly explain your objection instead of being, dare I say, overly emotional.  The best interpretation of his remarks is if he’s referring to Gaddafi’s participation in the Uganda-Tanzanian war, and if that’s the case I would certainly say the United Nations should have intervened, and in a post-Cold War world someone clearly would intervene. The Security Council did not even issue a resolution over the conflict – obviously that would not be true today.

But one thing is certainly clear: Tanzania counter attacked Uganda not to save the Ugandans from Gaddafi’s ally Imin, but rather for it’s own security purposes:

On 12 October 1978, Uganda invaded Tanzania in an effort to annex the Kagera region, but in February 1979, Tanzania counter-attacked with the help of Ugandan insurgents, overrunning Kampala, installing Milton Obote as President, and forcing Idi Amin to flee Uganda. After several months of occupation, Tanzanian forces withdrew from Uganda. Tanzania used force only once it had been attacked by Uganda and it succeeded in halting the systematic murder of thousands more people. As in India’s intervention in East Pakistan, humanitarian considerations seemed to have played an important role, but here again, its own security considerations took priority.

Were that to happen today there’s no doubt there would be international backing against that sort of invasion. Why not then? Probably because Julius Nyerere led Tanzania in the nonalignment movement. (Not to mention that Nyerere was no saint, having supported a coup in the Seychelles). In the politics of the time, the reluctance to intervene made sense, even for the Carter Administration. But it would not hold up today.

Point being this: Uganda-Tanzania That’s not what’s happening here, but if Sullivan is looking to this as an example of hypocrisy (and who knows what he’s referring to), well, he’s ignoring a lot of context.

What we do know is that the situation in Libya has deteriorated to such a point where imminent actions, clearly threatened by Gaddafi would overwhelm the region with refugees. In a situation like this, that destabilization is the main causus belli, but likewise the international community should also generally reinforce that killing your own people is actually against international norms too. That those norms are only enforced by force when regional stability is threatened does not mean that they are not violations of international norms.

One last point: none this is to defend the actual war planning or lack thereof. This is purely contesting the jus ad bello, not the jus in bello. (That is, decision to go to war, not the conduct within the war itself.)

Sullivan is so convinced the Libya is Iraq that he’s not even aware of, much less investigating, any differences in approach or scale. I wish Obama would do more to sell this action – a speech to Congress would be a must – but objectively judging his actions, Sullivan is the one being overly emotional, not the President.

As a footnote, someone needs to have Sullivan read relevant parts of US Code regarding United Nations Security Council authorizations.


Written by John Whitehouse

March 18, 2011 at 7:54 pm

Libya is not Iraq

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Adam Serwer, now:

Both of the above statements could not be farther from [Obama] who, in 2002, said that war in Iraq Saddam Hussein “poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.” Whatever we’re doing in Libya, it can’t really be described as an attempt to eliminate an imminent and direct threat to the United States.

As Daniel Larison points out, all of what Obama said about Hussein can be said about Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. But the Libya intervention seems to have revealed a genuine ideological transition from the Barack Obama of 2002, from a kind of neo-realist to a full fledged liberal internationalist. Both approaches would have justified intervening on moral grounds, but the character of Obama’s intervention is differentiated by its reliance on international institutions.

That’s demonstrably not true. As I just posted, Voice of America reported the EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner is warning of a massive influx of refugees to Europe. Sure, this does not threaten the United States of America, but it sure does threaten Libya’s neighbors in the region – look at reports from the Tunisian border. There’s no indication those sorts of things are going to get better if Gaddafi levels Benghazi. But the regional effects is both the legal justification for action AND the one difference from Yemen, Bahrain (spilling outward is not the same as spilling inward), the Ivory Coast, etc. And by contrast, there was no real exodus I am aware from prior to the Iraq war (if anything, the war caused one). I don’t think being aware of how humanitarian crises spill over into international relations makes one doomed to be as bad as George W. Bush. Rather, it makes Obama conscious of actual international destabilizing actions, not just illusory ones.

(Moreover, any road to a new policy on Israel and Palestine has to include the issue of refugees. Recognition of that elsewhere can only help).

PS: This DOES NOT mean that Obama will not make some of the same mistakes in Libya that Bush made in Iraq or that it means whatever is done in Libya is just a great idea. Just that there’s more legal and political justification for the actions taken than in Iraq.

Written by John Whitehouse

March 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm