The danger of binary thought around the issue of Libyan intervention

Rory Stewart writes:

If the crises of Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, which have consumed more than 100,000 lives, four trillion dollars and absorbed a million foreign soldiers from 60 countries, have not made us more prudent, they should at least have made us wiser. For two decades our policies in these countries have been described, explained and criticised by political philosophers, civil servants, human rights activists, journalists, development workers, film-makers and 10,000 consultants. Parliamentarians round the world refer confidently to ‘Chapter 7 resolutions’, ‘no-fly zones’, ‘the experience of the Kurds’ and ‘the responsibility to protect’. But the basic questions about intervention seem to remain as obvious as they are unhelpful. You do not need to be able to name four cities in Libya to have four arguments against or for what we are doing. You can simply deploy those which were used in 1960s Vietnam, 1920s Syria and 1860s Afghanistan.

The arguments against intervention are neatly itemised by Albert Hirschman as ‘perversity’, ‘futility’ and ‘jeopardy’: an intervention could be dangerous (for us or for Libya); it could achieve nothing; or it could achieve exactly the reverse of what it intended. This line can be bolstered by the language of medicine or commerce: ‘first do no harm’; ‘it’s none of our business’; ‘we’re broke’. Or even race. Thus Conor Cruise O’Brien in 1992: ‘There are places where a lot of men prefer war, and the looting and raping and domineering that go with it, to any sort of peacetime occupation. One such place is Afghanistan. Another is Yugoslavia after the collapse of the centralising Communist regime.’

Against these stand the four national security arguments for intervention: fear of a rogue state, fear of a failed state, fear for the neighbours and fear for ourselves. First, we called Iraq a rogue state – the weapons of mass destruction, which could be launched within 45 minutes. Second, we called Afghanistan in 2002 a failed state – the vacuum filled by drug-dealers and terrorists. Third, in 2009, we emphasised the fear for Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan: ‘If Afghanistan falls, Pakistan will fall and mad mullahs will get their hands on nuclear weapons in Pakistan.’ (In Vietnam, this was called ‘the domino theory’.) Fourth, we are fearful for our reputation. From Kissinger in Vietnam to the British in Afghanistan there is the eternal anxiety about being seen to be defeated, of giving confidence to enemies, of losing credibility. In Libya’s case, these arguments focus on fear of Gaddafi; fear of al-Qaida in a post-Gaddafi failed state; fear of instability in the region (civil war in Libya shaking North Africa and pushing refugees across the Mediterranean into Europe); and fear for our own credibility (what if he survives our threats and imprecations?).

Then there are the moral arguments. There are the arguments against from international law (‘it is in contravention of state sovereignty’) and arguments from guilt (‘we are the people who armed and supported Gaddafi in the first place’). There are the arguments in favour based on the scale – brought home in continual news footage – of human suffering, which make the point that inaction is leading to more deaths: that we have a right and a duty to prevent the killing, a moral obligation to the Libyan people.

Thus, three arguments against action. Four fears about inaction. And a background of guilt, law and moral obligation. Each position has its own historical analogy. If you oppose intervention, you call it ‘another Vietnam’. If you support intervention on national security grounds, you call the opponents appeasers and invoke Munich. And you could still do a ‘replace all’ and instead of Libya insert Zimbabwe, Darfur or for that matter Abyssinia, the Hejaz or ‘the Kingdom of Caubul and its dependencies’. Here more than ever what seems to matter is not detailed knowledge of the country concerned but a basic attitude of mind: a high optimism, a reactionary pessimism and very rarely anything in between.

This is not to say that the millions of pages produced over the last two decades have achieved nothing. The arguments have been given a makeover and presented in a more contemporary design, encrusted with sparkling statistics, buttressed with new analogies. If you want, you can now replace Vietnam with Iraq, Munich with Rwanda and the Second World War with Bosnia. The ‘forward policy’ is now called ‘state-building’ and ‘pacification’ is ‘counter-insurgency’.

But the basic positions remain black and white. Do it or don’t do it, but no halfway houses. And therein lies the danger.

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