(Swans - November 4, 2013) Some politically liberal and leftist people who agreed with the idea of a NATO military intervention into Libya during its civil war in 2011, to prevent the military forces of Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship from entering the rebellious city of Benghazi and actualizing Gaddafi's threat to "bury" his opponents (because "those who do not love me do not deserve to live"), have since "felt had on Libya -- it was the same scenario and the same lies and PR as Iraq and Yugoslavia." A recent article by Patrick Cockburn, "Where War Reporting Goes Wrong," is one example of postwar anti-interventionist commentary that feeds this sense of regret. (1)
In November 2011, I expressed myself at length in favor of the NATO intervention in Libya, in my article "Political Belief And Self Image: Aron, OWS, And Libya." Two years later, I remain satisfied with that article and only return to the subject of the Libyan Civil War to address the regrets some have developed since. (2)
I find that the best attitude toward the Libyan Civil War is one I gained by reading Raymond Aron (see the bibliography cited in 2). He wrote that it was foolish to expect any one political act, which solved a crisis of the moment, to be the end of it after which events would proceed without problem. Rather, at any moment of crisis one chooses "the preferable instead of the detestable" with the realization that soon enough new and unavoidable complications will arise and the previously chosen policy will have to be modified, perhaps even reversed, by once again choosing the preferable instead of the detestable. In short, one is constantly acting, monitoring, correcting, and then arriving at a new point of decision, with a continuing repetition of this cycle. Peace is a process not a conclusion. There is no end.
"In politics the choice is never between good and evil, but between the preferable and the detestable." -- Raymond Aron (1905-1983)
The sour grapes anti-interventionists who are still fighting to win moral consolation by rehabilitating Muammar Gaddafi in historical memory do not have the guts to explicitly state their implicit preference: It was more important that Gaddafi stay in power, no matter how many Libyans in Benghazi and elsewhere he murdered, because these anti-interventionists accepted him as a symbol of their opposition to Western power (despite Gaddafi's cooperation with Western power) than it was that Western power (regardless of its ratio of self-interest to altruism) assist the majority of Libyans to free themselves from the Gaddafi dictatorship, and prevent an intended purge in Benghazi.
The reason Libya is an unruly mess today is because there is no Gaddafi dictatorship to suppress disorder and enforce the appearance of a stable state. The sour anti-interventionists bemoaning Libyan postwar instability have a marked preference for "order" instead of freedom for others, if that is what it takes to get those others to align with anti-interventionists' preferences on political appearances. From an Aronian perspective, the West's error in its interventionist policy toward Libya was its precipitous abandonment of the government of the Libyan revolution the instant the military victory had been won. The government of the Libyan revolution had asked the NATO forces to stay to help them restore order, to consolidate government power, and disarm militias. That would have been seen as a military occupation (a legal one, with UN ground troops via NATO) and fraught with dangers, but it would also have been the means for a postwar transition to peaceful (at least more peaceful) stability, as has been done elsewhere. However, the NATO countries wanted out ASAP because of domestic pressures not to incur casualties, and secondarily to limit their financial costs. Peacekeeping forces were necessary and not provided, and we are seeing the result of that today.
I do not see the present unruliness of the multi-militia Libya of today as justifying the claim that the West should "not have interfered in the sovereignty of another country" to prevent a murderous and vengeful dictator from massacring (with Malian mercenary troops) hundreds and perhaps thousands of his nation's citizens who wanted political freedom. Gaddafi had proved himself capable of such an atrocity with "the massacre of 1,200 political prisoners at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison in 1996." I could never accept the logic of strict non-interventionism that required acquiescing to the likely occurrence of a Benghazi massacre because Gaddafi would have seen it as necessary to ensure the continuation of his regime, and thereafter presumably the continuing appearance of a quiescent and stable state in Libya. (3)
I reject doctrinaire non-interventionism. Yes, to act -- intervene -- will necessarily have consequences, karma; and sitting back after acting only once and expecting forever after to be blessed with good karma is sheer infantile laziness. The mature way to act is to realize from the start that the law of karmic diffusion is unavoidable, that one must continually interact with the consequences of one's previous acts, and that to intervene or not intervene are both acts. The first is an overt act of commission, intervention, and the second is an overt act of omission: in the case of the Libyan Civil War (in March 2011) of accepting the occurrence of a massacre you know you (your nation's military alliance) had the power to prevent. Do the people of Benghazi regret their unruly freedom today, and regret not having endured the thwarted massacre so that the survivors could live in a well-regulated state now? Do non-interventionists inquire?
If you have a preference for freedom over order or equality for all (that is to say, the people of other countries) then you have to accept that when such popular political freedom is won those foreigners might establish an order, a state, or government, that does not fully or even remotely align with your international political preferences. To accept that others are free is to accept that they will think independently of your interests and ideology. They may appreciate that you supported their drive for freedom, and then go about their business happily without consulting you further.
If you have a preference for order or equality over freedom for others because you think that the order to emerge out of some foreign civil strife will better align with the international politics and ordered societies you prefer, then you have to accept that the foreigners forcibly organized to your preference might resent you because you support the barriers to their freedom as they see it.
The French monarchy of Louis XVI supported the American Revolution so that it eventually succeeded against the British Crown during the reign of George III. Yet, the subsequent use of American political freedom has never been slavishly aligned with French interests nor hostile to the British in the long term.
The military forces supplied by the USSR to ensure the communist regimes in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were not overthrown by popular revolts for personal political freedom never won the gratitude of the East Germans, Hungarians, and Czechs for the preservation of the order of their communist states, and the degree of equalization of social benefits provided by those enforced orders.
"You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom." - Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Clearly, only with political freedom is it possible to experience a peaceful order, but it is tragically possible to kill peace and enforce a quiescent order by removing political freedom, and it is unfortunately easy for turbulent disorder to accompany political freedom. Raymond Aron gives a very penetrating discussion of the interplay between freedom and equality (freedom and order) in the form of a comparison of the ideas of Tocqueville and Marx. (4)
In his article, "Where War Reporting Goes Wrong," Patrick Cockburn states:
In Libya in 2011 the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine-guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, which was mostly brought about by NATO air strikes.
Muammar Gaddafi's forces had between 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers (which included many foreign mercenaries) of which between 2,300 to 4,700 were killed and over 1,500 captured.
The revolution had 17,000 defecting soldiers and volunteers, and by war's end up to 200,000 volunteers. Between 4,700 and 8,000 of these opposition fighters were killed.
The estimated total casualties on both sides, including civilians, were: 25,000 killed, 4,000 missing, 50,000 injured.
I find these numbers too high to be dismissed so cavalierly.
The best estimate for collateral deaths due to the NATO bombing was 60 civilians killed and 55 wounded. (6)
Clearly, a greater number of Gaddafi's troops were killed by NATO bombing than the collateral civilian deaths, but we cannot just say that most of the Gaddafi troop casualties were from NATO bombing. There was too much bitter street fighting in Misrata, Sirte, Tripoli, and other towns to dismiss the action of opposition fighters.
The population of Libya in 2012 was 6.155 million. From this we can estimate the portions of the population killed, missing, injured, and opposition volunteers during the Libyan Civil War: 0.41% killed, 0.07% missing, 0.81% injured, 0.28% opposition volunteers at the start of the war, and 3.2% opposition volunteers at war's end.
The population of the United States in 2012 was 313.9 million. If we imagine that a proportionately equivalent civil war had occurred in the U.S., the corresponding tallies would be: 1,275,000 killed, 204,000 missing, 2,550,000 injured, 867,000 opposition volunteers at the start of the war, and 10,200,000 opposition volunteers at war's end.
Despite the apparently low percentages of casualties and combatants, I doubt anybody in the United States would consider such tallies to arise from insignificant action by oppositional American ground forces, were this hypothetical civil war to actually occur. In this highly improbable analogy we have to assume that the role of intervention forces would be played by superior beings from outer space, perhaps the United Federation of Planets that Ambassador Klaatu had invited Planet Earth to join in the 1951 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still. (7)
For Libyans, the success of their revolution against the dictatorship has given them the freedom to devise a new and democratic social order. Perhaps they will succeed at that as well. The opinions of foreign spectators of the Libyan Civil War who are disappointed about the war's outcome and have regrets about its aftermath are irrelevant to the strengthening of peace and freedom in Libya.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
1. Patrick Cockburn, "Where War Reporting Goes Wrong," Counterpunch, 7 October 2013, http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/07/where-war-reporting-goes-wrong/ (back)
3. Chris Stephen, "Libya prepares for its trial of the decade," The Guardian, 17 September 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/17/libya-trial-gaddafi-senussi
"Abu Salim prison," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Salim_prison (back)
4. Raymond Aron, "The Liberal Definition Of Freedom," in Politics And History, published in 1978 by The Free Press, reprinted in 1984 by Transaction Publishers, ISBN 0-87855-944-2 pbk., a translation of "La définition libérale de la liberté," European Journal of Sociology, V, 1964, (pages cited as 159-89, so probably 159-189 unless the 1 is an error in 159) (back)
6. "International Commission of Inquiry on Libya Report," United Nations Human Rights Council, 2 March 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/03/03/world/africa/united-nations-report-on-libya.html (back)
7. "The Day The Earth Stood Still," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still (back)