Though the signs were clear from the start of the Libya operation that people hadn’t clearly thought through the consequences of intervention, it took a tweet from Anne-Marie Slaughter (the recently-departed Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and one-time author for our magazine) to crystallize just what a mess we’re really in. She wrote: “To all who represent Libyan opposition. Pics of slapping terrified prisoners on [Anderson Cooper’s AC360 program on CNN] does not reflect values you are fighting for.”

I was struck by more than just the tone (though the thought of one of our doyens of foreign policy presuming to lecture members of a beleaguered militia on how to properly behave is galling enough). It’s that this brief late-night missive captured precisely how liberal interventionists misunderstand reality. ~Damir Marusic

The rest of Damir’s critique is well worth reading, but I would like to focus on this claim of the “values” for which the rebels are supposed to be fighting.

As an article in Der Spiegel noted, some of the Council’s official rhetoric also sounds weirdly antiquated and Soviet. For example, the first page of the website declares:

The council derives it legitimacy from the decisions of local councils set up by the revolutionary people of Libya on the 17th of February.

Why not just make their slogan, “All power to the majalis!”?

On a more serious note, as their website helpfully tells us, the National Transitional Council in Benghazi affirms many of the right things, which is apparently good enough for McCain and Lieberman to advocate recognizing them as the Libyan government. It doesn’t follow that the Council’s statement is widely shared, and it isn’t clear that the Council has much real authority, but it’s important to recognize here that Libyan rebels fighting against Gaddafi may have a very different idea about the values they’re defending. When rebels talk about dealing out “revolutionary justice” to “traitors,” they likely don’t see that as a betrayal of their values, but rather as an expression of them. Robespierre didn’t see the use of terror as a compromise of virtue, but as the enforcement of it.

What I find amazing about Slaughter’s tweet is the belief that an armed insurrection against what everyone acknowledges to be a brutal regime will adhere to international standards for the treatment of detainees and non-combatants. It isn’t going to make that much difference what the political views of the opposition’s nominal leadership are. The terrible weakness and indiscipline of the rebels make them ill-suited to waging the sort of campaign against the guerrilla tactics now being used by Gaddafi’s adapting forces, and this exposes the civilian population to greater harm.

For the rebels, this is an existential fight against a vastly superior enemy, and popular support for that enemy is evidently not as weak as their Western boosters would have liked to believe. That doesn’t excuse the rebels for anything they do to their detainees and suspected regime loyalists. Acknowledging this is to take seriously that supporting these rebels could lead to other atrocities. When liberal interventionists urged the U.S. to take sides in this conflict, they were urging the U.S. to lend support to a rebel force it couldn’t control and doesn’t understand. Tweeting disapproval of rebel detainee treatment from the other side of the planet when you have been a leading figure in demanding outside support for those rebels is rather precious. One of the reasons that I have made a point of drawing attention to reports about rebel mistreatment of detainees, arbitrary detentions, and rhetoric about “revolutionary justice” meted out to traitors is that there should be no illusions about what it means to back armed insurgents against their own government.