Humanitarian Intervention – Just War in the Name of Peace?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for “legitimate defense by military force”:
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

As a lifelong religious pacifist, the recent intervention in Libya offers me an opportunity to re-examine my convictions. I will immediately state that on grounds other than pacifism, I suspect that Western intervention in Libya will likely result in the installation of a new puppet government in Libya subservient to U.S. and European interests. If recent history is any guide, the Libyan intervention will likely lead down the road well-traveled in Iraq, the Philippines, Haiti, and many others.

If I have political grounds for rejecting Western intervention, why would I consider the broader question, “is humanitarian intervention ever justified?” One reason I want to explore this larger question is because it will actually clarify and extend the initial skeptical presumption. As John Howard Yoder, Mennonite pacifist theologian, has argued in several places, the Just War Theory didn’t arise as simply a wholesale abandonment of the Sermon on the Mount and primitive Christian pacifism, but rather as a serious attempt to deal with the new political responsibilities that were thrust upon the Christian church in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire’s legitimacy.

Working through the classic Just War criteria listed above from the point of view of a skeptical presumption against the legitimacy of violence is something I’ve wanted to do for some time. As a post-Christian radical Quaker, one piece of unfinished business in my political evolution demands that I examine with fresh eyes the questions of war and violence. If my objections to war are not directly derived from an obedience to Jesus, what substance do they have?

The Case for Humanitarian Intervention in Libya

My approach will be to examine the arguments for Libyan intervention according to each of these criteria, followed by examining counter-arguments point-by-point. The arguments for intervention must satisfy all four Just War conditions and must reinforce each other. Once that argument is constructed, it will be possible to probe the weaknesses of the total argument.

The first “strict condition” listed above to justify “legitimate defense by military force” is whether “the damage inflicted on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.” In the case of Libya, the claim is made that without intervention Libya’s democratic uprising will be crushed. As Juan Cole has recently put it, “the prospect loomed of a massacre of committed rebels on a large scale.”

In other words, Libya’s freedom and establishment of a democratic government depends on immediate Western intervention. Cole argues that “If the Left opposed intervention, it de facto acquiesced in Qaddafi’s destruction of a movement embodying the aspirations of most of Libya’s workers and poor, along with large numbers of white collar middle class people.” The question asked by the first condition is answered in the affirmative by Cole and others.

The next condition to be satisfied is that “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. Again citing Cole, “Libyans were being crushed inexorably.” He makes the point that the opposition to Qaddafi is not militarily organized due to the decades of dictatorship.

The third condition is “serious prospects for success.” This condition means that if a military force action cannot succeed, even if justified, it should not be done. Cole again argues, “aerial intervention by the world community could make a quick and effective difference.”

Finally, the condition that “use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Cole addresses a few of the commonly argued evils that accompany intervention and dismisses concerns about them. He doesn’t address some of the more significant ones, which I will take up in constructing my counter-argument.

The Case Against Intervention

Immanuel Wallerstein argues the skeptical case very well, “in the relatively short run, [intervention] can prevent what would otherwise be a slaughter of people. But in the longer run, does it really do this? To prevent Saddam Hussein’s short-run slaughters, the United States invaded Iraq. Have fewer people been slaughtered as a result over a ten-year period? It doesn’t seem so.”

Even further, Wallerstein points out that both Arab and Western leaders want to “slow down, channel, co-opt, limit the second Arab revolt and prevent it from changing the basic political realities of the Arab world.” Wallerstein sees the wave of rebellions sweeping from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Bahrain, as part of an historic shift forward in the region.

This argument relies on the final condition, Wallerstein is arguing that the likelihood of “graver” evils and disorders following in the wake of the Libyan intervention is high, given recent historical precedent. This argument also implies a negative judgment on the second condition, “serious prospect of success.” If Libya becomes a new Iraq or Afghanistan, meaning years of military quagmire, then it may not be a lesser success to allow Qaddafi to remain in power.

If this argument holds, that intervention will not succeed in its stated humanitarian aims over the long run and inaction means Qaddafi remains in power and crushes his internal opposition, then the second conditions comes back into play. What other means of removing Qaddafi and protecting his democratic opposition haven’t been tried?

To take the first condition last, is there an argument that the seemingly inevitable “certain” massacre of the democratic opposition to Qaddafi wouldn’t have been a lasting and grave evil? Some have pointed out the ambiguous nature of the opposition. According to one analysis by Mahmood Mamdani, the opposition included Islamists, educated middle class activists, royalists, and tribalists. Only the Islamists have the military experience to mount any effective armed resistance.

To summarize the counter-argument, Qaddafi’s intended crushing of his opposition may not have been lasting, grave, nor certain. Other non-military means of removing Qaddafi and supporting democratic opposition have not been exhausted. The prospect of succeeding in even the minimal long term goal of limiting human suffering seems doubtful, if the conflict becomes protracted. Finally, the prospect of graver evils and disorder following in the wake of Western Intervention seems very high.

The opposition to Qaddafi is part of a chain of rebellions that began in Tunisia in late December 2010. The Arabic nations affected have all been dominated for decades by authoritarian regimes. The oppositions to these dictators are a mix of elements ranging from pro-Western, anti-Western, to more neutral.

It is a fundamental value of a progressive philosophy to support democracy over dictatorship. Most Western nations have been guilty of selectively supporting dictators until such support proved counter-productive. At such a point, military powers like the U.S. would move to uproot the newly undesirable leader and replace him with someone more congenial to its interests.

In such a regressive situation, with the majority population being drawn and quartered by the forces of dictatorship, Western imperialism, Islamist terrorism, and mass poverty, there is no one single intervention that can bring democracy and peace. The long road to world peace remains the perennial challenge for progressives.

The Radical Democratic Imperative

The main focus of progressives within nations like the U.S. must be to oppose their own governments in the name of global peace and justice. Going back to at least the Vietnam War, movements for social justice have rejected the claims of the U.S. to be acting in the interests of global democracy. Whether the U.S. government itself is legitimately democratic is in question. At no point in our history has any government been elected by anything approaching a majority of Americans.

Over the past century, barriers to voting have been lifted, for women, for blacks, and others. However, each person’s single vote has been systematically devalued by the influence of corporate capitalism within elections. A government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich is not a democracy, nor can it pretend to be advancing democracy when it systematically colludes with dictators to prevent democratic outcomes.

Qaddafi is doubtless an evil dictator and deserves to be forcibly removed from power. However, this single act does not occur in a vaccuum, anymore than the collapse of the U.S.S.R. did not lead to prosperity and democracy in Russia. We must ask what will replace Qaddafi and what non-military actions can be undertaken to create a more constructive outcome.

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