Sunday, April 10, 2011

Libya: Damage, Collateral and Otherwise

Our story so far:

The Libya Chapter
The Libya Ambivalence
Toward a Shallower Ambivalence
Libya: He's a Rebel
Libya: Qadaffy's Defenders
Libya: Place Your Bets
Libya: Friends Like These
Libya: Opportunity Costs

Wars are obviously a lot easier to get into than out of. That alone should be grounds for avoiding them whenever possible. Beyond that, of course, is the Shit Happens Doctrine. War supporters invoke it regularly whenever complaints of atrocities arise: "Hey, this is war; get over it."

Which is exactly the reason why extreme caution needs to be employed before ever going down that road. Atrocities are inevitable, no matter how righteous the cause – indeed, those most certain of the righteousness of their cause are prone to committing (and excusing) atrocities. And the other side's atrocities – real, exaggerated, or fabricated – are then the impetus for ever more stringent efforts to defeat them.

Wildly inflated casualty figures are part and parcel of the business of war as well. Depending on who you believe, Qadaffy has dispatched anywhere from several hundred to ten thousand civilians so far. Of course, it's possible to believe simultaneously that Col. Q is a bloodstained dictator and that Misinformation Happens. And depending on who you believe, this is either a libel against the people of Libya or confirmation that Defecation Occurs:
The anti-Gaddafi force’s lack of any democratic credentials and mass support is evident in their reliance on foreign imperial armed forces to bring them to power and their subservience to imperial demands. Their abuse and persecution of immigrant workers from Asia, Turkey and especially sub-Sahara Africa, as well as black Libyan citizens, is well documented in the international press. Their brutal treatment of black Libyans, falsely accused of being Gaddafi’s “mercenaries,” includes torture, mutilation and horrific executions, does not auger well for the advent of a new democratic order, or even the revival of an economy, which has been dependent on immigrant labor, let alone a unified country with national institutions and a national economy.
Under the evolving paradigms of Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention, the idea is to use warfare to prevent even greater death and destruction. This, however, involves what Donald Rumsfeld might call "known unknowns." We can never know what would have happened on the ground if we had not intervened, nor can we know, once all the body counts are tallied up at the end, if our final number will end up being any smaller. When intervening humanitarian style, great care must of course be taken to avoid civilian casualties. But that is easier said than done, as this war supporter notes:
But in practice, “protection of civilians” is not always the most easily defined of goals — not in a war zone where non-uniformed fighters on both sides mingle among the population, and not in a country still permeated with security goons long accustomed to doing their dirty work in the shadows... 
There are awful decisions and trade-offs that will have to be made, and either way they will likely carry a terrible cost. Spare Gaddafi’s forces in the interest of protecting nearby civilians, and Gaddafi’s forces may go on to slaughter those civilians themselves. Hit Gaddafi’s forces, and nearby civilians may also die. Making snap decisions about this may be all the more difficult, given the UN constraints that there are to be no troops on the ground. There are reports that Libyan rebels are already helping with the choice of targets, but in any military operation, there’s that fog of war.
This is the kind of Chinese Finger Puzzle we have been trying to solve in Afghanistan for the past decade. The history of aerial warfare began, incidentally, exactly 100 years ago when Italy dropped the first bombs from airplanes – on the "savages" of Libya. And during the ensuing century, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to make precision strikes against military targets on the ground without spreading death and destruction among civilians.

Err on the side of caution and you degrade your military efficiency. Err on the side of dispatching the enemy, and aerial warfare can end up creating more of them, from relatives of those deemed "collateral". Incidents of mass civilian deaths from our errant missiles in the Afghan and Pakistani theaters have been staggeringly frequent, and undermine the war aims just as surely as exercising caution on behalf of noncombatants allows opposing forces to escape unharmed.

This dilemma is no easier to solve in Libya, where rebels and loyalists alike may be in or out of uniform, and the rebel forces are mostly using the same equipment as government forces – since they began the rebellion by breaking into munitions depots. We already have a number of friendly fire incidents as a a consequence, including one where undisciplined rebels fired celebratory gunfire into the air, inviting sorties from NATO jets.

David Westbrook grapples with the inherent dilemmas in relying on air power alone, concluding: "Let me suggest a rule of thumb: we should not undertake the moral burden of killing when we are unwilling to undertake the existential risk of dying."

Ivan Eland also points out another unintended consequence of the decision to use organized violence:
So in today’s world of widespread and instant communication, which facilitates such peaceful opposition, any U.S. help for a violent opposition group, no matter how heinous the dictator or worthy the opposition (we certainly don’t know that in Libya), sends the wrong signal to other opposition groups around the world. Any U.S. support to any such violent group may encourage others to launch aggressive uprisings, no matter how feckless (and the Libyan opposition is certainly that), against dictators in an attempt to win covert or overt U.S. military support for their cause. Thus, in the long term, the U.S. attack on Libya and other attacks for “humanitarian” purposes may actually cause more people to be killed around the world, attempting to do with violence what can now be done more effectively by peaceful means.
This is no small consideration, and the Libya intervention may in part be an outgrowth of our decision to back the gangsters of the Kosovo Liberation Army twelve years ago. And as we may recall, frustration at the ability of air power alone to affect the outcome led to ever more destructive sorties against the people of Belgrade, with passenger trains, broadcast studios, and foreign embassies ending up caught in the crossfire.

And just as the Western-educated elites among the Libyan opposition must surely have studied how Kuwaitis and Kosovars got us to intervene on their behalf, prospective rebels of the future will no doubt have taken this kinetic action into account. And if we succeed in overthrowing Qadaffy, we have thus justified the use of force. As Matt Yglesias noted, there was an emerging consensus about the need to restrain defense spending as a component of taming the budget, and that consensus has disappeared. Militarism will be ascendant, and neocons emboldened to point at Iran, Syria, or some other strategic patch and say, "Why not here, too?"

So we have an unknown amount of blood and treasure on the table now, and an uncertain outcome. One thing is certain, though – we will see ghastly destruction before it ends. Given that, the question must be asked: did we do everything we could to exhaust peaceful alternatives before we started? That will be the subject of the next post in this series.

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