Libya, Iraq, and Humanitarianism

Glenn Greenwald has a typically thorough and well-argued piece attacking the claim that opposing intervention in Libya means that one is indifferent to the suffering of Libyans. Greenwald is, I think, certainly correct on this point; there are enough compelling arguments against intervention that no one can legitimately accuse opponents of being motivated by callousness, as opposed to well-earned skepticism about the use of US force in the Arab world. I should also say that I’ve found myself extremely ambivalent and torn about the pros and cons of the Libyan intervention — although let me add, so as not to be evasive, that I’m hesitantly in favor of at least some military response aimed at preventing the large-scale slaughter of Libyan rebels and their supporters (although not necessarily at removing Qaddafi from power altogether). However, Greenwald makes a couple of arguments that have been seen frequently in discussions of Libya, and which I think deserve a response.

First, he suggests that the same sort of humanitarian considerations that war supporters are currently making about Libya were far stronger in 2003 with regard to Iraq; thus, if one supports intervention in Libya, one would logically be required to have supported intervention in Iraq:

Now, those opposed to U.S. involvement in the civil war in Libya are deemed indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Libyan people from Gadaffi and willing to protect his power. This rationale is as flawed logically as it is morally. Why didn’t this same moral calculus justify the attack on Iraq? Saddam Hussein really was a murderous, repressive monster: at least Gadaffi’s equal when it came to psychotic blood-spilling. Those who favored regime change there made exactly the same arguments as [John] Judis (and many others) make now for Libya…Why does that reasoning justify war in Libya but not Iraq?

It certainly is the case that supporters of the Iraq war manipulatively invoked humanitarian considerations in order to paint opponents of the war as callous. But is it really the case that the humanitarian case for war was much stronger in Iraq than it is in Libya? It seems to me that there is one important consideration that Greenwald doesn’t mention: Saddam Hussein certainly had more blood on his hands than Qaddafi overall, but by the time of the 2003 invasion his worst atrocities were in the past. He undoubtedly remained a brutal dictator with a horrific human rights record, but was no longer committing bloodshed on the scale of, for instance, the Al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s. Furthermore, in 2003 he was not imminently threatening to commit more atrocities; in Libya, by contrast, Qaddafi has been threatening to inflict mass violence on rebels (not to mention peaceful protesters) in the immediate future.

I would suggest that if any intervention of this kind can be justified — which is, of course, a question open to debate — its aim must be preventive rather than punitive. Such an intervention should not, in other words, be intended simply to punish a dictator for past atrocities, but must have the prospect of preventing atrocities in the imminent future. Thus the humanitarian argument for war in Iraq was deeply unconvincing in 2003, but it would have been far stronger if the year were 1988 and Saddam was in the process of slaughtering the Kurds. (This is not to say that an intervention in Iraq would necessarily have be justified in 1988, but simply that it would have been more justified than it was in 2003.) Of course, the fact that the Reagan Administration continued to actively support Saddam during his late-80s atrocities — with nary a peep from many of the same people who 15 years later would be piously invoking the humanitarian case for war — was one reason many war opponents were deeply skeptical of this argument for invasion.

Second, Greenwald mocks the notion that the US government is motivated by benevolence and earnest humanitarianism:

But what I cannot understand at all is how people are willing to believe that the U.S. Government is deploying its military and fighting this war because, out of abundant humanitarianism, it simply cannot abide internal repression, tyranny and violence against one’s own citizens….They just all suddenly woke up one day and decided to wage war in an oil-rich Muslim nation because they just can’t stand idly by and tolerate internal repression and violence against civilians? Please.

This is a frequent line of argument from critics of the Libya intervention on the left. It has the added virtue of being almost irrefutable: no one can seriously examine the US record of inaction when friendly governments commit atrocities against their citizens and conclude that American decision-making is motivated solely by some humanitarian calculus independent of geopolitical considerations. (I do, however, find the notion that this intervention is primarily about oil to be deeply unconvincing.)

However, even if we concede that Western policymakers are hypocrites and that their claims to be motivated solely by disinterested benevolence are disingenuous, what follows from this? Presumably, whether the Libyan intervention is just or wise must be decided on the basis of its concrete effects on the ground — and not on the basis of whether or not the people pushing it are noble and benevolent. That is to say, if we believe that the intervention will prevent mass atrocities without exacerbating the crisis, we should support it even if Western leaders are hypocrites for doing so. If, on the other hand, we believe that the intervention will only make matters worse, we should oppose it even if we believed that these leaders were genuinely well-intentioned.

As stated, there are many, many good reasons why someone could be opposed to the current intervention. But I don’t think that either of these arguments, which have frequently been made by opponents of the attack on Libya, are particularly convincing.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. I’m an opponent of intervention in Libya, and I don’t care if anyone thinks me callous.

    Western policymakers ARE hypocrites; so are policy makers everywhere. Living this hypocrisy (example: we intervene in Libya but allow Saudi troops to shoot down Bahraini peaceful protestors) is morally corrupting. And that’s why the United States should only intervene overseas if the people, territory, or truly vital interests (narrowly defined) of America are threatened.

  2. Excellent piece Daniel. The Iraq analogy was a poor one, fuzzy and exaggerated. Rather uncharacteristic for Greenwald.

  3. Daniel, you are naive. This is a war for BP and Total. Notice who Britain and France are leading the way, they have the most oil contracts up for bids. If the country is divided, the oil interests may be able to fudge out a better deal. Otherwise, explain Cote d’Ivoire, Bahrain, Myanmar, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan or whichever stan is the most egregious.

  4. I’m deeply suspicious of moral arguments for war. By its very nature, war is deeply inhumane. And the results of US “humanitarian” interventions prove it.

    Saddam killed how many? Hundred of thousands?
    The UN addresses that problem by imposing sanctions that killed how many? Hundreds of thousands. Wow! That was a solution!

    Then the US addresses the problems by invading Iraq and presiding over the deaths of how many? Hundreds of thousands, if not a million. Wow! Another deeply humanitarian intervention.

    Osama killed how many Americans? 3000.
    The US avenges that by killing how many Afghans? Well, nobody is keeping count, because the number would embarrass those who like to cite the “noble nature” of US involvement. But it has to be in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. Wow! That seems like a humanitarian response to the deaths of 3000 Americans!

    Now Qadhafi has killed several thousand rebels. How many Libyans have to be killed before the international community has fully addressed Qadhafi’s inhumanity? 50,000? 100,000?

    It boggles the mind to see how anyone could possibly think of these interventions as humanitarian.

  5. I think we know what the real reasons for this are. As we know, the prime movers here were the French, as the present crisis very much implicates their oil and influence. Sarkozy wants to be the principal mover and shaker in the post-Qaddafy regime, thus preserving French influence in North Africa and in the Atlantic bloc regarding Middle East events. The US was pulled in by the usual Israel-firsters. The Arab Spring has shaken Israel’s security in the region and a compliant power in North Africa is seen as the way to reconsolidate the old neo-colonial political and military dependency. The New Libya will be an anchor for US/EU regional influence, much like Iraq, providing a base for the usual security, intelligence and business nexus as well as the AFRICOM logistics. It doesn’t really matter if it’s another authoritarian regime — indeed, it’s preferable. It is indeed all about power.

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