It’s been agonizing to see the tide turn against resisters of the Gaddafi regime in Libya over the last few weeks. After protests swept unpopular governments from power in Tunisia and Egypt, it really seemed as if a mostly peaceful movement in Libya could accomplish something similar. Instead Gaddafi and his circle have rallied, and the result has been very bloody.
Because it’s agonizing to watch this unfolding, the urge to stop it from continuing to unfold is entirely understandable. But there is, as always, a very strong burden on anyone who wants to argue in favour of war. In this case, the suggestion all along has been to insert a heterogeneous and variously motivated coalition of nations into the middle of what has quickly become a civil war—or rather, to insert it above a civil war, since everyone involved seems to think that we can keep it at bombing from the sky. I doubt that this is the right decision, but I don’t want to argue against the war now. Instead, I just want to make a few quick notes about the burden falling on a supporter of it.
First, a supporter of this war should be able to rattle off his top five favourite books on Libyan history and/or contemporary Libyan politics, and to explain the contribution each of these books has made to his or her understanding of the likely outcome of intervention into the civil war. The point is: If you don’t know a lot about Libyan culture and history, I just don’t think you can advocate a war there. A similar burden does not fall on a critic of the war in my opinion. This is because the default position on killing other human beings is to not do it. If you want to move away from the default position, your first responsibility is to know what the fuck you’re talking about.
All right, then. Too onerous? Gaddafi’s victims are dying and you don’t have time for a trip to the library? Fine. Without peeking at a map, a supporter of the war should be able to name Libya’s six neighbours, and explain how the war is likely to affect each of them—and, how each of them is likely to affect the war, and its aftermath. Again, the first burden on someone who wants to advocate a war is to know shit. This is one of the lessons that Iraq ought to have drilled into everyone’s heads.
Finally, a point about hypocrisy, double standards and the coalition attacking Libya. Let me try to make the stale dialectic a bit fresher and then connect it back to the burden on a supporter of the war. It goes like this:
Con: “But Bahrain (just to take one example), a US ally, is right now brutally cracking down on protesters. How can the US attack Libya for doing the same thing while providing diplomatic cover for Bahrain! Bahrain is even part of the coalition against Gaddafi!”
Pro: “Yes, it’s hypocritical, but so what? The fact that we can’t, or don’t, address every wrong, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t address any wrong.”
Of course it would be awful if the US and a few allies were going to war against Libya without the backing of the Arab League. But in order to hold its anti-Libyan coalition together, the US, Britain and France will have to make compromises, and this includes going more easily on Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on protesters than they would otherwise need to. It was tricky enough for the US, with a military base in Bahrain, to criticize the ruling clique there. It only gets harder to apply peaceful pressure to that situation when the ruling clique’s continuing support for the war against Libya is needed.
Notice that choosing war in the one case makes it harder to apply peaceful pressure in the second. War is funny that way. A supporter of the war needs to think not just about whether the coalition position is hypocritical, but also about whether the war will aggravate the hypocrisy.
Update: And see Fallows.