I’ve been converted to the theory that one of our most basic forms of bias is that against doing harm. Allowing terrible things to happen right in front of us–even when we have the means to do something to stop it–provokes no comparable concern.
I imagine this predisposition explains why first Secretary of State Clinton, then President Obama insisted that the rolling massacres to which Libya has descended are “unacceptable.” The moment I heard the Secretary of State say so, a thought occurred to me that has driven me almost to distraction: If we countenance this slaughter and have the means to mitigate, contain, or even decide it through intervention and don’t do so, then it must be “acceptable” by definition.
I wasn’t the only person who had some version of this thought. Tom Scocca, blogging in Slate, thinks a President’s use of the term “unacceptable” an outright absurdity if not an outright inversion of what the word normally means:
“Unacceptable to whom? What does ‘acceptance’ mean, here? Did Qaddafi submit the bloodshed to the Oval Office for approval, but Obama refused to sign for it? Did someone give the Libyan protesters an opt-out box to click if they declined to be shot, or if they preferred to be shot later?
“Come statement-making time, the American presidency sounds like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer in reverse: the things the president can’t change get deemed ‘unacceptable.'”
For Scocca the point of interest was precisely this uncanny consistency with which Presidents use this word for those outrageous states of affairs that…won’t be changed. I’m interested in the current use of the word, because when an unhinged dictator like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi loudly announces that he will “cleanse Libya house by house” and draws upon foreign fighters–and according to one disturbing account taken by al-Jazeera even deluded migrant workers–to bring his threat to any plausible source of opposition, a state has perpetrated such a loss of legitimacy that even absolute monarchist Thomas Hobbes would have to embrace revolution.
Of course, President Obama and his Secretary of State are hardly alone in taking strong language but no action. Last Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Colonel Gaddafi and told him the violence he was deliberately sowing “must stop immediately.” Then there is this first paragraph of a report from today by the CNN wire staff:
“As clashes in the Libyan capital continued Friday between government security forces and anti-regime protesters, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters unequivocally: ‘The violence must stop.'”
Well, Ban is on the right side of the Libyan Civil War, and he’s saying the right things…and I can’t fault him for consistency either. We can’t fairly fault the Secretary General when the constituent states of the UN fail to act. It’s ironic, but leading the UN sounds like a lonely job. The article further related that Ban estimated the death toll in the Libyan uprising since February 17th at over 1,000 and called on other governments “to do everything possible” to prevent violence against civilians.
300, 1,000, 2,000…In truth we have no idea how many people Gaddafi has sacrificed this week to his delusional bid to remain in power because we have little capacity to observe what he is doing. Libya seethes under multiple apparitions of chaos. There is chaos as some army units and pilots slaughter protesters and some defect to their cause. There is chaos as mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan fly into Libya with a broad mandate to stop the rebellion in the streets–some apparently shooting any civilian who goes outside. There is protesters as mercenaries drag the bodies of the dead away in an attempt to hide the full death toll. There is chaos as protesters become a fighting force, overrunning arsenals both with and without the assistance of army mutineers. As a consequence of the preceding, there is chaos in the cities of Libya’s Mediterranean coast over which the protesters gain, then sometimes lose, then gain control again.
The apparent chaos actually follows multiple logics–the city of Benghazi’s longstanding grievances towards Tripoli, tribal loyalties, individual incentives to avoid eventual punishment by the protesters or to pursue the newly-available but rapidly-dwindling resources made available by the Gaddafi regime, the material prize of a greater share of Libya’s oil wealth, and varying levels of fear among all parties. What is remarkable is how quickly Libya has passed through the stages of a civil war–at least so far and to appearances.
It isn’t coming fast-enough, however. This brings us back to my point about our deep-seated bias against doing harm. Some have argued that any sort of UN or NATO military intervention in Libya, from imposition of a no-fly zone to the establishment of beachhead safe zones or incursions into certain Libyan coastal towns (even just to deliver needed supplies like food to civilians) would expose the protesters to charges of foreign-backed subversion. I think this political concern was plausible until Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was deposed. Even if the revolution in Egypt hadn’t breathed such life into Middle Eastern pro-democracy protests generally, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s objection to Gaddafi’s brutality frames the argument for an intervention on humanitarian grounds.
It’s true that we cannot know whether other Middle Eastern anti-regime protests will suddenly escalate from violent to very violent in contexts where military intervention wouldn’t be feasible. Some skeptics of intervention would say we would take blame for any ensuing politicide, thus incurring hostility from that country’s masses. I say such warnings are a little strained, and miss the point: Libya is bleeding profusely right now. If we just take some kind of military action whether to strike at loyalist positions, protect the protesters or to feed Libyans, we can save lives, issue a warning to other dictators in the region considering escalating their repression, and show participants in these movements in our deeds what the President implied with his January 28th speech on Egypt–that the US is with them on this one.