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Libya and the Failure of ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention

Libya is one of the chief examples most people today would think of when discussing the merits and flaws of "humanitarian" intervention.
Libya and the Failure of ‘Humanitarian’ Intervention

Samuel Moyn’s review of Michael Walzer’s A Foreign Policy for the Left is worth reading in its entirety. This passage jumped out at me:

Walzer’s attempt to snatch the promise of American intervention from the jaws of recent horrors shows the need to repeat the litany. The left has long since learned how difficult it is to respond to those who laughed when it tried to save the pure idea of communism from its totalitarian applications. Walzer applies the same strategy to humanitarian intervention, as if it might work better in this case.

Remarkably, Walzer does not even mention the Libyan intervention in 2011 [bold mine-DL], which—like the Iraq War—has left hopes for militarized humanism in shambles. Ever since Democrats and their allies abroad acted to topple Muammar al-Qaddafi under the cover of humanitarian protection, the possibility of insulating the so-called “responsibility to protect” civilians abroad from great power designs and horrendous long-term outcomes has become incredible. Much like a stock newsletter touting a new strategy to beat the odds after a market crash, the promise of a better scheme for picking winners among prospective interventions has become unbelievable, at least for now. For Walzer, however, the priority is to chide fellow leftists for failing to defend the option of humanitarian intervention in theory, not to understand today why almost nobody thinks it improves the world in practice.

It seems strange that Walzer wouldn’t mention the Libyan war at all in this book. As Moyn says, it is extremely relevant to the debate over “humanitarian” interventions and their consequences. What makes this omission even more striking is that Walzer was a public opponent of the Libyan war when it happened. Walzer opened his article written at the start of the intervention with this statement:

There are so many things wrong with the Libyan intervention that it is hard to know where to begin.

Walzer was absolutely right to oppose the Libyan war, and his early arguments against it were very similar to some my own objections. That makes his decision not to mention the Libyan war or his opposition to it that much more difficult to understand. He could have cited his opposition as an example of good judgment and proof that he could distinguish between necessary and unnecessary wars, but for whatever reason he didn’t do that. Libya is one of the chief examples most people today would think of when discussing the merits and flaws of “humanitarian” intervention, but apparently Walzer doesn’t think it is worth talking about. It is even odder that Walzer would make defending “humanitarian” interventionism the focus of his book when he saw very clearly then how easily the rhetoric of protecting civilians could be abused to launch an unjustified war.



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