Tuesday, March 15, 2011

To Not Intervene in Libya

Intervention in armed conflict confined within the borders of one country makes me nervous.  My colleague, Ben, recently advocated for Western intervention in Libya, and while it is clear the rebels need assistance, I’m still leery of coming off the fence.

From out a different time comes this reflection on US foreign policy in October 1959:
The Western conception of Democracy seems to me the only one that is worthwhile from the viewpoint of the human condition, of human rights, and freedoms.  Its superiority resides in the fact that it places Man at the summit, while Communism reduces him to the state of a slave to an all-powerful State...But the weakness of Western Democracy is its failure to deliver social justice...In most countries where they build up military forces as a rampart against totalitarian, freedom-hating communism, our American friends close their eyes to the violations of Democracy perpetrated by the governments concerned - violations which lead to a system no less totalitarian than the one they are fighting against, and without the latter’s advantages...The West must try to understand that.

This passage struck a chord with me in the context of the Arab Spring.  The issue of when and when not to intervene is not a new one, but our posture has evolved over time.  However, there is one lesson we can learn despite this evolution:  When the West picks a side and backs it with weapons and violence, they tend to destroy that which they sought to protect.  Western, or American, involvement can quickly illegitimize a rebellion.  It can rally the ambivalent to the government’s side, seeing Western involvement as a violation of sovereignty.

Even when we are successful at covertly supplying rebels, the outcomes can be hard to predict.  Case in point: American interventionism in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s.  In Afghanistan we dumped weapons and when we felt we had “won” we left Afghanistan to sort itself out.  So what are we to do?

The US does best when it supports peaceful protests.  When we work through diplomacy, when we don’t supply guns, the results tend to be more favorable. You saw this in Egypt and Tunisia. We deftly navigated a complicated diplomatic minefield, which led to relatively bloodless revolutions. The final outcomes remain unknown, but few think the situation in Egypt or Tunisia would have been better if the US had intervened militarily.  Clearly in Libya we lack the carrots we did in Egypt, and diplomacy is only effective if the sticks remain on the table.  However, I remain hesitant of military intervention.  I would freely admit there may not be a situation where I would change my mind.

As to the speaker above, he was Sihanouk, the despotic ruler, and one-time king, of Cambodia.  In his own efforts to root out leftist opposition, he ignored all manner of human rights and was eventually deposed in a coup.  When the US intervenes militarily the consequences are uncertain, and often don't fully precipitate until years later. Sihanouk decries the way the West builds up military forces and doesn't use them, but the use of force has a ripple effect far more unpredictable then civil disobedience and diplomacy.

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