Noam Chomsky has often identified a short list of conditions that are characteristic of the wars the US has engaged in during recent decades and has proven accurate in the past. Given the advent of a new war it is worth comparing the conditions and seeing how they apply in the new case of Libya. The conditions for war in a country are:
- "It must be virtually defenseless.
- It must be important enough to be worth the trouble.
- There must be a way to portray it as the ultimate evil and an imminent threat to our survival."
Libya is certainly defenseless, as has been demonstrated by the enormous tactical success of the bombing campaign (one plane down allegedly due to mechanical failures, writing on day three). The US/UN have been adamant about a no boots on the ground war. Libya has an ability to cause some minimal levels of damage to a ground force of US troops. They couldn't possibly prevent it, but they might be able to kill a few people so while it remains a purely air mission there is utterly nothing Libya can do about it in the face of coordinated bombing campaigns. Condition one: check.
Libya is also of some importance for the obvious reason of its oil. It has the world's 9th largest oil reserves and of these its distribution is tilted to the more important light sweet crude. For the most part Libya, despite being a pariah state in many other aspects, has been able to work very closely with the internationals to ensure a continued supply of oil. Nonetheless, the idea of disruptions - and in particular ones that could potentially harm international companies working in Libya - to this flow of oil is considered unacceptable. Libya also has several other geopolitical influences regarding being a member of muslim pariah states defiant to international order. It has previously attempted to build nuclear weapons (aborted due to extensive sanctions, one of the examples of a successful sanctions campaign to accomplish a preventative goal, incidentally) and undoubtedly plays some role in international terrorism. The simple fact of being a pariah state and standing up to the international order is sometimes considered to be sufficiently important. Condition two: check.
As for condition three, Gaddafi has undoubtedly been portrayed (probably very much correctly) as a crazy, murderous monster - the embodiment of pure evil, in some sense. This has been widely mentioned and it seems cannot be left out of any oped on Libya (my own included!). It also was posing an imminent humanitarian threat as it surrounded the rebel stronghold of Benghazi vowing to clean out the rebels. So pure evil with an imminent threat. The threat was not too largely purported to be against the US, however various mentions of international terrorism have been thrown around lightly (despite the fact they are more likely to increase than decrease if the internationals invade Libya as a form of blowback). So it is certainly capable to make a convincing narrative about the evils of Gaddafi. Condition three: check.
Given that the conditions hold, it is not entirely surprising that the invasion occurred. Of course, there was and still is a very legitimate humanitarian threat which cannot be ignored. It is possible to argue, I think, that intervention is legitimately justified on these grounds. The point, however, is that the intervention regardless of whether it is morally justified occurs because it satisfies the conditions and not purely on the grounds of its humanitarian justifications.
There are many countries in the last few decades that have had crazy, murderous dictators, many countries where violence occurred, many countries where horrific civil wars have resulted in enormous loss of life. But these countries that did not receive international intervention (or tepid international intervention, as so often exists in UN missions in sub Saharan Africa) for they did not satisfy one of the conditions. Usually in small countries what is not satisfied is condition 2. The regimes are either unimportant (such as a central African country with no significant oil reserves or other geopolitical or economic importance) or it is western backed and hence does not have importance as a pariah opposing international order. The latter is the case in Yemen or Bahrain where horrific actions are occurring against peaceful protesters without a whimper of an idea of international action against these US backed regimes.
Condition 1 is relatively uncommon, or at least, if condition 1 doesn't hold there is simply never any discussion. A country like China or Russia is allowed to perpetrate all the abuses it wants with little condemnation simply because they are effectively impossible to beat militarily in anything but a Pyhrric victory. Condition 3 is usually the trivial one in the sense that almost all weak and important regimes defiant of international order happen to periodically provide some excuse for interventionism. Humanitarianism, for instance, is usually thrown into the bag no matter what the war. Fighting communism or fighting terrorism or fighting a monster like Saddam Hussein who pose grave threats and are pure evil may be the dominant justification, but a humanitarian justification (such as Hussein's past treatment of the Kurds) are included nonetheless. However, this never stands alone for the engagement of violence, of atrocities and the start of civil wars has never been a sufficient condition for international engagement. That is, until an intervention happens at which point we all pretend the humanitarian concern to prevent violence is the sole condition under which discussion of intervention takes place.
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