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When Preventive Wars Are Fought to Counter Empty Threats

It’s quite clear that this debate will never be settled. But the back-and-forth does point to the difficulty of making preemptive humanitarian into a doctrine or consistent policy: successful prevention is rarely seen as an overall success and may make intervention the next time around that much more difficult. ~David Bosco Bosco and Stephen Walt […]

It’s quite clear that this debate will never be settled. But the back-and-forth does point to the difficulty of making preemptive humanitarian into a doctrine or consistent policy: successful prevention is rarely seen as an overall success and may make intervention the next time around that much more difficult. ~David Bosco

Bosco and Stephen Walt recently went back and forth over the question of what would have happened in Benghazi absent outside intervention. Bosco quoted Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski to offer another view:

All we have and ever will have is the evidence of Qaddafi’s past behavior, before the decision was made, as well as the threats he was making. And that gave rise, we think, to legitimate concerns about what might happen — including arrests and killings of opposition supporters — had he taken Benghazi and the other towns and cities east of Benghazi where large numbers of people rose up against him, or defected from his ranks. I also think that as a practical matter it would have been extremely hard for him to reestablish his authority in the east without large scale repression (given the size of the rebellious population relative to the number of security forces Qaddafi could have deployed there permanently).

Yes, that’s all we have. That’s a real problem for defenders of the Libyan intervention and advocates for preventive humanitarian intervention in general. Preventive humanitarian intervention depends on having good judgment and evidence about a regime’s intentions, which is comparable to having reliable intelligence for preventive wars for “counter-proliferation” purposes. Preventive wars for the sake of “counter-proliferation” can’t be justified even on the terms of their advocates if intelligence is unreliable, lacking, or manipulated. Likewise, armed, preventive humanitarian interventions can’t be justified on their advocates’ terms if “all we have” is evidence of past behavior and stated threats.

This is especially true when past behavior in this case includes putting down two rebellions in Benghazi without massacring the population, and apparently recapturing towns held by rebels without massacring the population this time as well. The February 17 movement derived its name from the date of the 2006 rebellion that Gaddafi put down, and one of the would-be military leaders of the rebels is Gen. Heftar, who led the failed 1996 rebellion against Gaddafi before fleeing to the U.S. The 2011 uprising was broader and more significant than either of these, but what exactly about Gaddafi’s behavior in putting down these earlier rebellions would lead us to believe that he was going to massacre civilians? That doesn’t mean that Gaddafi isn’t committing crimes in the course of fighting the rebellion, but that the scale and nature of the crimes he’s committing make Libya a lousy case for humanitarian intervention.

If we’re relying on a government’s stated threats, it doesn’t help when there is significant disagreement about what a government was threatening to do and whom it was intending to target with “no mercy.” It should be said that HRW has reported that Gaddafi’s forces are targeting some civilians in Misurata. Obviously, these are outrageous, illegal tactics, but what is striking is that the same report says that there have been 257 fatalities and 949 wounded in Misurata since fighting began there in late February. It is possible that the report does not account for all of the dead and injured in Misurata. Even so, the city was under siege for weeks before the intervention began, and it is hard to believe that a government bent on massacring opponents would have killed so few when it was able to act before the imposition of a no-fly zone and without the threat of Western bombs.

Bosco made an interesting point last month when the Libyan war was starting:

I’ve got no quibble with this rationale, although the scale of the killing and atrocities in Libya remains somewhat murky. But it does raise an interesting question: can a low-tech army fight a civil war, particularly in urban areas, without regularly violating the laws of war and endangering civilians?

Imagine for a moment that a poor country is fighting a civil war with a low-tech and spottily trained army. Imagine further that the government leaders have no intention of abusing civilians but are determined to prevail against the rebels, most of whom don’t wear uniforms. Is this kind of army even capable of conducting operations that don’t fall well afoul of the rules of war? It may be that developments in the laws of war and changing norms have made lawful war almost impossible for all except the most advanced militaries, blessed with precision weapons and enormous budgets.

This raises an important question: how do outside governments distinguish between deplorable acts that take place in the context of a civil war fought by low-tech forces and the sorts of extraordinary crimes that could justify outside intervention? There would be difficulties involved in making that distinction, but one way to start is not to go out of our way to conflate the two as if they are all the same thing.

Alan Kuperman remarks on all of this in an op-ed citing this report:

If bloodbath was unlikely, how did this notion propel US intervention? The actual prospect in Benghazi was the final defeat of the rebels. To avoid this fate, they desperately concocted an impending genocide to rally international support for “humanitarian’’ intervention that would save their rebellion.

On March 15, Reuters quoted a Libyan opposition leader in Geneva claiming that if Khadafy attacked Benghazi, there would be “a real bloodbath, a massacre like we saw in Rwanda.’’ Four days later, US military aircraft started bombing. By the time Obama claimed that intervention had prevented a bloodbath, The New York Times already had reported that “the rebels feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda’’ against Khadafy and were “making vastly inflated claims of his barbaric behavior.’’

It wasn’t just the rhetoric and inflated claims of the rebels that pulled the U.S. into Libya. One of the major claims in support of the Libyan war is that we can assume we know what Gaddafi would have done because of his public rhetoric. Supporters of the Libyan war are annoyed whenever anyone makes comparisons with Iraq, but there is one thing that the two wars definitely have in common: both of them initially relied very heavily on how the respective dictators wanted their enemies and the rest of the world to perceive them. Both wars are the product of taking dictatorial bombast and saber-rattling as if they are reliable indicators of future behavior. Despite having no WMDs, Hussein wanted to cultivate the suspicion and fear that he did have them to exaggerate his government’s power. It is conceivable that Gaddafi was engaged in a similar bluff. As in Iraq, outside governments may have reacted to an empty threat.

To compensate for the relative weakness of his position exposed by the uprising, he may have used threatening and intimidating rhetoric to mislead his domestic opponents and other governments into believing that he was stronger than he really was. In both cases, the bluffs didn’t work, because outside governments took the dictators’ self-presentations so seriously that they attacked. Perhaps one of the reasons we find ourselves in wars based on dubious, uncertain, and false claims is that we invest far too much importance in the public rhetoric and deliberately misleading behavior of megalomaniacs who misrepresent reality as a matter of course. If there were reliable intelligence or real evidence that supplemented this, that would be one thing, but we don’t have any of that. We’re not being asked to take our government’s word for what would have happened in Benghazi. We’re being asked to take Gaddafi’s word at face value, and largely on the basis of that our government has started a war.



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