Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Selfish Case for Libyan Intervention

I never intended to write a serious exposition in support of Libyan intervention for two principal reasons. 1) Since my audience is largely Objectivist oriented, I imagined it would be unnecessary as attacking a weakened Moammar al-Gadhafi appears to me an obvious proposition and 2) recent public opinion polls suggest that the American people have taken the default position on the idea—that is, to do nothing. In the matter of the former, I have been surprised to find so much strident opposition—to the point of refusing to discuss the matter—to a Libyan campaign among Objectivists and other rational people concerned about defending the republic in the current war (I do not count Libertarian types like Harry Browne and Ron Paul as among the rational). In the case of the latter, this was to be expected by the failure of President Obama to do any preparation work for the coming campaign until yesterday when he made the case in the most abject and selfless terms humanly possible: “But we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults on cities like Benghazi and Misurata, where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government”—not the best way to embolden an already weary people to arms. It is also a very dangerous call to arms because Bahrain, China, Saudi Arabia and countless other states are currently doing the same thing, why are we not attacking them as well?

It is not my job to fund Mr. Obama’s deficiencies—even if it were, I have neither the time nor patience for such a Sisyphean crusade. But, there is a very simple and relevant case for attacking and helping to destroy the regime of Gadhafi and bringing that tyrant murderer to some manner of justice either in a court or on the battlefield. In the course of this case I will deal with what I think are the best arguments that can be made against the wisdom of getting involved in this Libyan rebellion. They are: 1) President Obama, through his words and actions over the past two years—reinforced by yesterday’s speech—cannot be trusted to conduct such a campaign in anything approaching the proper manner and will simply waste immense amounts of American blood and treasure in a selfless war to achieve nothing; 2) the United States has no rationally self-interested reason to bomb Gadhafi’s armed forces or to attack his air force—the Libyan rebels are not our allies and this is their war; and 3) if we intervene, kill Gadhafi and then the rebels create an Islamist regime in place of the Colonel’s old socialistic kleptocracy, we will actually be worse off than before we started—not to mention poorer in blood and treasure. These are all legitimate objections one might and can raise to the notion of intervening militarily in Libya. They all, however, lose sight of our very real national interests at stake in the demise of Gadhafi: for our murdered countrymen, for ourselves, and for our interests in the broader war which we still find ourselves fighting almost a decade after the fatal attacks of 11 September 2001.

Let me start by saying that as far as the Libyan Rebels are concerned, they are a means to an end—not, as alleged human rights advocates pushing for war would have it, the end in itself. The United States ought not to care or even want to attempt to steer the Libyan rebellion in any direction other than by simply maintaining that if it ends up being “Gadhafi: Part Two” or something even worse, we will not take it lightly. No regime established by the Libyan people that is just as bad or worse than the one Gadhafi currently runs will have any extra legitimacy—it will be just as illegitimate and just as open to invasion and destruction as the country is right now under the man President Reagan referred to as a “mad dog.”

Our war with a group of ideologically committed fanatics goes back at least as far as 1979, when a revolution occurred in Iran that resulted in the ascension of the modern world’s first fundamentalist Islamic state. That state, run by a council of clerics headed by supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, inaugurated a war against the west directed primarily at the western world’s greatest ally in the Middle East—Israel. The United States—avowedly called “the Great Satan” by the regime in Qom (the city of Iran where the supreme leader governs)—was also a target of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism throughout the region whenever it had the means and opportunity.

The decade of the 1980’s witnessed a proliferation of Arab enemies of the United States—largely supplied by the Soviet Union (the exception here is Afghanistan where supplies came largely from the United States and other Islamic countries). One such enemy was the dictator of Libya—Moammar al-Gadhafi. Gadhafi came to power in a military coup in 1969, instituting what was at the time a fashionable Arab national socialist regime like that of Nasser in Egypt and, later, the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As such, there is a mistaken propensity among Western commentators to view Gadhafi (also Hussein) as ultimately secular forces in the Middle East. This is a mistake that both men have been all too happy to take advantage of in more recent years when they used this misconception to claim support from the West as a bulwark against the Islamic fundamentalists they allegedly held at bay. Hussein did this in his war against Khomeini’s Iran, and Gadhafi has taken this pose in the decades after he ceased trying to direct terrorist efforts outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both Gadhafi and Hussein, while not being ideologically driven to worldwide jihad against the west, have fomented terrorism against the state of Israel quite openly during their long reigns. Gadhafi has been a very consistent supporter (mostly through immense sums of money, but also through weapons training) of organizations like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is avowedly Islamist in its intentions and goals. Quite simply it supports the destruction of the state of Israel (a goal which Gadhafi has glossed over by claiming it simply means the creation of one new inclusive state in the region with both Jews and Palestinians living together named something like “Isratine”) and the creation of a new Palestinian Islamic State. Gadhafi is so committed to this goal that when the Palestinian Liberation Organization began the peace process with Israel, he expelled that group and all Palestinians from Libya (something on the order of 30,000 people) as a sign of his disapproval. Gadhafi is a fascist, yes. But Arab fascism is not atheistic, or even secular. No more than the hedonist House of Saud is a force for fringe philosophies of the ancient Greeks.

The troubles the United States had directly with Gadhafi, and which he has never been brought to any sort of justice for, began in the early 1980s when rumors of Libyan assassination plotting reached the State Department and President Reagan. The rumors were credible enough that Reagan expelled the Libyan mission from the United States and cut off all diplomatic ties with Gadhafi. As the tensions rose, Gadhafi decided to encourage truly radical terrorists like Abu Nidal (Osama Bin Laden’s forerunner) to take dramatic actions against non-Israeli Western targets. Another group which intelligence agencies believe was bankrolled by the Libyan dictator is the Palestinian Liberation Front, which hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in October 1985. An American (a handicapped Jewish man in a wheelchair) Leon Klinghoffer was killed during the hijacking.

Libyan terrorism struck the west again that year when, in December, the airports of Rome and Vienna were bombed. Twenty people died in those attacks, five of whom were Americans. Again, in April 1986, Libyan agents blew up a West Berlin disco which was widely known to be the haunt of U.S. servicemen—two U.S. servicemen were killed as well as a Turkish civilian while 230 people were injured including fifty U.S. servicemen. Libyan cables intercepted in the aftermath led to a limited bombing reprisal against Tripoli on 15 April 1986 at the order of President Reagan. No other measures were taken against the Libyans for the bombings (the Germans later prosecuted the Libyan agents responsible for planning and carrying the bombings out when secret files were discovered post unification).

Most famously, and despicably, Gadhafi retaliated for the April bombing of Tripoli by ordering the destruction of a passenger aircraft known to be full of Americans, Pam Am 103 out of London en route to New York City on 21 December 1988. When the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, 259 people died (189 Americans) and eleven more were killed on the ground by the falling debris. Gadhafi formally accepted responsibility for the bombing in 2003 as part of an unprecedented deal that involved payoffs to victims families, the lifting of international sanctions and the restoration of diplomatic recognition. This does not, in my opinion, constitute anything approaching justice for the 197 Americans killed on orders from Gadhafi up through 1988. But the story did not end there as the Libyans blew up yet another airplane over Niger on 19 September 1989 which killed 170 people including seven Americans, the wife of the American ambassador to Chad among them. That’s 203 Americans (464 people altogether) known to have been deliberately murdered either on the direct orders of Gadhafi, his regime underlings or through Libyan funding of international terrorist organizations. It does not include the incalculable number of Israelis killed with the aid of millions of dollars from Gadhafi. Until the attacks of 11 September 2001, only Iran (mostly through similar surrogate networks in Palestinian terrorist groups and through Syria) surpassed Gadhafi as a murderer of Americans.

Gadhafi’s “sudden” quiet in the 1990s owes more to the collapse of his protector and weapons dealer—the Soviet Union—than it did to any fear of the Americans. What had he to be fearful of? The occasional bombing? Economic sanctions? He was left unscathed after rather brazenly attacking the most powerful country on the planet in numerous ways and murdering hundreds of its citizens abroad. He was the Bin Laden of the 1980s—an Islamic crackpot (though this one had international recognition as a head of state) who rather openly killed westerners and got away with it for all intents and purposes. There could be few better examples than Libya and Iran for Bin Laden to have observed before launching his own terrorist war on the United States in the 1990s.

What message does the republic send when it not only refuses to punish attacks on its civilians abroad, but, encourages murderers to wait long enough and steal enough money to buy absolution and have the slate wiped clean at the end of the day? There have always been some impediments to taking out the Libyan dictator. He had Soviet backing for many years, he seemed to have a firm grip on his puny country and a loyal (read bought) military machine that would be difficult to eliminate. Also, other missions got in the way after 1988—Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo—and by the time you get to that horrific day in September, twelve years had elapsed. But does that make any difference? That’s twelve years of proving you can get away with it. If one goes back to the opening salvo in 1985, it’s sixteen years. Only Iran could claim a longer reprieve from punitive justice, twenty-two years.

Every government with any pretension to international respect, domestic loyalty and legitimacy must protect the lives of its citizens from foreign insult and attack. This has been the cornerstone of the government’s raison d’ĂȘtre from the very beginning. All governments accept this as a sine qua non of civilized relations with one another. Insult and abuse of foreign citizens has long been considered—and has been acted upon—as a casus belli. Our republic is not only not immune to this aspect of government, it is more obligated under it than most governments because our citizens are the government. Each individual is invested with that portion of the nation’s sovereignty that he can rightly command without impugning the rights of his fellows under our political theory. Thus, when one of our countrymen is assaulted or killed abroad—and for no justifiable reason that puts him in the wrong—we take it extremely seriously and always have.

At the beginning of the wars of the French Revolution in 1793 up through the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the Royal Navy routinely boarded American merchantmen flying the neutral flag of the republic to reclaim and impress native born Englishmen—scooping up the occasional native born American in the process in addition to naturalized citizens. This resulted in many hundreds of state-sponsored kidnappings over a period of nearly twenty years before the republic declared war on Great Britain. This was only kidnapping, and only several Americans were killed between 1793 and 1812. Many thousands of Americans died in the War of 1812 to vindicate American neutrality and the right of American merchant ships to travel unmolested.

When a special mission was sent to France in 1797 to treat for a resolution of a diplomatic crisis, it was told to pay massive bribes just to meet with the French foreign minister. Knowledge of it led to an undeclared naval war with France. There was intense clamoring for a declaration of war from Congress against France, as well as fear of a French invasion. No one even died in this affair, diplomats were insulted.

Barbary pirates, operating from ports in North Africa stretching from the modern nations of Morocco to Libya, routinely preyed upon American commerce as soon as ships began flying the American flag (thus losing British protection) in the Mediterranean in the 1780s. The policy of the government under the Articles of Confederation and through the first twelve years of the republic under the Constitution was to negotiate treaties of tribute with the local rulers who controlled the pirates. The pirates not only raided American commerce but kidnapped and enslaved American sailors, who then had to be negotiated for by ransom-paying American agents. This sometimes took many years and many thousands of dollars. Most pernicious was that one could never be sure when the local potentate would decide that the Americans were cheating him or that the rates of tribute being gathered by other potentates made him look sufficiently weak that he needed to cut down the American flag and unleash his pirates to begin the process all over again. Washington and Adams would have liked to chastise the pirates of North Africa militarily but that required massive outlays for a navy; tribute was cheaper given the precarious financial position of the government. Washington, addressing this, said he had been endeavoring to “gain time to our country to settle and mature its yet recent institutions, and to progress without interruption, to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, the command of its own fortunes.”

Thomas Jefferson altered all of that by sending naval squadrons into the Mediterranean Sea to chastise the Beys, Deys, and Sultans of the Northern African states and force treaties out of them respecting the shipping rights of American merchantmen sans tribute. In the case of Tripoli, this proved especially dramatic as the government waged a prolonged naval and land campaign that sought to displace the sitting Bey with his disaffected brother. That process, while succeeding in the eastern portion of the Tripolitan state, failed. But the mere threat of a small ragtag army marching from Alexandria to Eastern Libya convinced the Bey that peace without tribute was better than being killed and displaced, thus vindicating Jefferson’s opinion of nearly two decades that he “should prefer...war [because] 1. Justice is in favor of this opinion. 2. Honor favors it. 3. It will procure us respect in Europe, and respect is a safe-guard to interest. ... 5. I think it least expensive.”

The wars with the pirates resumed when, during the War of 1812, they decided there was no threat of American naval punishment. After the war ended, President Madison dispatched nearly the entire navy (ballooned because of the war) to North Africa where it, once and for all, ended the threat of North African pirates. This was an off and on war of great expense fought by a young republic without any real naval traditions over more than a decade, all merely to protect shipping right of way and to stop the practice of hostage taking and enslavement of American citizens.

I could continue to lay out the history of wars or near wars that the American republic has fought or threatened to fight to maintain the honor, dignity and rights of Americans abroad who were minding their own business or merely trying to perform their jobs without injury and offense to others. The republic never set down a statute of limitations for rightful retaliation and never forgot the wrongs suffered unaddressed at the hands of foreign depots and potentates. The reason for this was simple. They wanted the American flag to stand for something abroad. To be respected, loved, revered, and admired foremost, particularly by all those who wanted liberty and the right to make their own way in the world. But they also wanted that flag to protect its citizens in every corner of the world. They wanted the exclamation “I am a citizen of the United States!” to be a protective shield that would cause all who heard it to immediately think twice about what it would mean to molest such a person.

For much too long in the recent history of our relations with the various states and potentates of the Middle East—first Iran, then Libya, then Syria, then the Palestinians, then Iraq, then Afghanistan—we have taken a cavalier and indefensible position on nearly all affronts to American citizens. Avenging them, protecting them, defending them was not and continues not to be seen as “worth it.” The risks to some useless “peace process” or some alleged alliance were and are seen as too great. Or the aftermath question: what happens after we get rid of so and so? What if it’s worse? These paralyzing and cowardly actions and thoughts are symptomatic of everything that has been and is wrong in our policies and approach to the entire region since 1979.

It cannot be worse. A Libya controlled by Gadhafi is not in any respect that matters better than a Libya controlled by Osama bin Laden. Is it freer? No. Is it less anti-American? No. Is it more respectful of individual life? No. Is it less pro-terrorist? No. Gadhafi’s own take on Bin Laden circa January 2009 was that “Terrorism is a dwarf not a giant. Osama bin laden is a person who can be given a chance to reform.” Having allowed Gadhafi to attack us for a decade and never making a serious effort to get rid of him has only added fuel to the fires of encouragement for anti-western terrorists in the whole region. This rebellion and civil war presents a golden opportunity to rectify all of this at least as concerns Libya. A civil war always has been and always will be a recipe for foreign intervention. Foreign states almost always intervene in civil wars because one (or both) side asks them to do so, or because they wish to conquer a divided country, or because they have some other interest at stake. One side has asked us to intervene and, more importantly, we have some other interest as stake.

The capture, trial, and execution of Gadhafi or his simply being killed due to our efforts and/or assistance is our interest. No one in the world has the right to kill and murder American citizens and get away with it. It does not matter how long ago it was. Our countrymen are not less valuable to us because they have been murdered, nor do we drop our quest for vengeance and justice because years pass before we had an opportunity to have it. What sort of nation are we precisely if we can simply yawn and forget our fellows who were murdered by a tyrant’s caprice and then convince ourselves that his continued survival—particularly when we have the ability to kill him—is not a black stain on the edifice of our republic? We cannot claim to uphold anyone’s rights at home or abroad, to stand for anything at all, to even live under a government worthy of the name if we have become that shallow and contemptuous of our fellow citizens. And to have people who claim to understand reason and self-interest better than most others seriously argue that we have nothing to gain at Gadhafi’s demise—that it is not worth risking American military servicemen—is saddening.

No American serviceman is worth any of our enemies. Even if I were offered a deal by Lucifer himself to cast all of the republic’s foreign enemies into the sun for the cost of one American serviceman I would reject it. We cannot decide on going to war based on that notion for we shall never defend the republic or wage war in its interests ever again. No American life is worth less to American citizens than the lives of our enemies. But the credibility of the republic’s name, justice for murdered countrymen, vengeance against the man who ordered their deaths, making the flag feared and revered to enemies and friends respectively are all legitimate self-interested goals that all Americans should be willing to fight for. They are goals that all past Americans have fought and died for in every corner of the planet. They are notions, concepts and ideas that catapulted the republic from paying embarrassing tributes to pirates to commanding the free world through trade and openness—delivering justice to all and punishing any and all enemies with severe prejudice.

Those among Objectivists who cannot even support a campaign against one of the premiere butchers of their countrymen cannot have any rational expectation that their fellow Americans will ever follow their lead to thwart the aims of the Iranians. Who would take them seriously? When is the last time Ayatollah Khamenei killed an American? What is the magic number of years it takes to suddenly be absolved of murdering an American? Apparently such a number exists in the allegedly moral universe of some, but not in mine.

Gadhafi is not our biggest threat in the world. But no one is arguing that he is, or that we even devote massive resources to killing him. It will not take massive resources. The man has alienated seemingly every nation remotely close to him and all of them want a piece of the final part of his bloody story. We are not called upon to ignore the Iranians in this mission, merely to take care of one piece of long overdue business and tell every enemy of this republic in the world that no matter how long it takes, no matter how well protected they think they are, the United States will find and destroy them eventually. Killing and murdering Americans means, and can only mean, death to the culprits. This is a message worth fighting for.

Finally, as concerns President Obama’s handling of the situation; it’s already abysmal. Declaiming all American objectives that make any sense, making no mention of killing or capturing Gadhafi, the President has draped the entire venture in a shameful and cowardly altruism more appropriate to a nun or medieval flagellant. No American will be or can be inspired by his insipid message. It is the message of the weak, self-effacing, and cowardly West, led by the appeasing United Nations and the weakest and most compromised Western powers—France and Great Britain (Spain and Germany are not to be considered "powers" and the former can hardly be considered "Western" at this point). They have all declaimed any selfish objectives: it’s all for the benefit of the Libyan people they self-righteously intone. This is the worst possible reason to risk American lives, because the question that then needs to be asked to make it legitimate is this: what’s so damned special about the Libyan people? They have asked for our aid, this much is true. Are they secular? Some of them yes, but there are many who are not and, more importantly, there is no indication they plan to set up a secular free state in place of Gadhafi’s dictatorship. Are they likely to respect the rule of law and individual rights (far more important than whatever the hell is meant by “democracy”)? Who the hell knows? If history and common sense are any guide, almost certainly not. So, again, what the hell is so special about the Libyan people that they deserve world-wide intervention? The answer is obviously nothing.

Unfortunately, if the question is consistently framed in that way, then no rational person could, should, or will support attacking Libya. Not because the post-Gadhafi state will be worse—it cannot be—but because we ought not to intervene in civil wars unless we have made an alliance with the side that is clearly morally and politically right and good, or because we have a legitimate grievance and cause for war against one side or the other (or both sides). The latter certainly exists in the Libyan case and thus justifies our going to war, but if no one plans to make that the cause for the war, then it is yet another war for nothing which will eventuate in nothing except sacrificed Americans. This can only further depress the spirits of the American people. I sincerely hope that this oratorical drapery around the mission is simply rhetoric designed to mute criticism from leftist Europeans and worthless Middle Eastern demagogues while a league of nations that despises Gadhafi for their own legitimate reasons does everything possible to assure his ouster. Anything less than that—if Sarkozy, Obama, Cameron, and the rest of them are serious in their self-abnegation—would be tragic.

For more on this crisis, Gadhafi, and how to deal with him, read:

Libya and Terrorism

"Support to Proxies,", 26 April 2005

"Give bin Laden a chance, Gaddafi tells Obama" Reuters, 22 January 2009

"Gaddafi 'personally gave the order for Lockerbie bombing' and I have PROOF, claims dictator's former justice minister," Gerri Peev, 24 February 2011

"Is Barack Obama Secretly Swiss?" Christopher Hitchens, 25 February 2011

"While the White House Slept," John R. Bolton, 6 March 2011

"American Inaction Favors Qaddafi," Christopher Hitchens, 7 March 2011

"Libya needs action now," John R. Bolton, 14 March 2011

"Don't Let Qaddafi Win," Christopher Hitchens, 14 March 2011

"Against a No-Fly Zone," Stanley Kurtz, 17 March 2011

"Libya, the US, and the Moral Imperative to Intervene," Shadi Hamid, 17 March 2011

"Libya: A good intervention is hard to pull off -- but we should still try," Charles Moore, 18 March 2011

Obama Statement on Libyan Action, 20 March 2011

Statement from Paris Summit on Libya, 20 March 2011

"Qaddafi Must Go," Max Boot, 28 March 2011


Burgess Laughlin said...

> "I could continue to lay out the history of wars or near wars that the American republic has fought or threatened to fight to maintain the honor, dignity and rights of Americans abroad who were minding their own business or merely trying to perform their jobs without injury and offense to others." (Bold added.)

I am trying to find the central issue. Is the issue the nature of a proper government in relation to its citizens after they have left the country?

Is the following the bone of contention?

A proper government is obligated to protect the rights of every citizen even when that citizen leaves the country. If that government fails to protect the rights of its citizens abroad, it is obligated to avenge those whose rights are violated by other governments or the various criminals they harbor.

Anonymous said...

Nonsense. "Liberating" Libya is an act of altruism. We have no legitimate interest in who runs that patch of sand.

Alexander V. Marriott said...

The central argument is repeated throughout in various ways, but it perhaps most explicit in the line: "No one in the world has the right to kill and murder American citizens and get away with it. It does not matter how long ago it was. Our countrymen are not less valuable to us because they have been murdered, nor do we drop our quest for vengeance and justice because years pass before we had an opportunity to have it."

Gadhafi is personally responsible for murdering perfectly innocent American citizens who were not in his country committing any crimes or infractions that would cause an international incident. Instead they were in Western Europe on vacation, or stationed in military bases minding their own business before being targeted for death by Gadhafi and his underlings.

All governments--but I think especially a republic like ours--must treat that sort of thing as unforgiveable until some measure of justice is extracted. Gadhafi's death, in this case, is more than overdue and appropriate.

Thank you for taking such painstaking efforts to read my argument here and then comment upon it. Oh wait, you didn't. I at no point suggest that I give a damn about who rules Libya except in the sense that a man who murdered American citizens openly and without remorse deserves death if we have the chance to deliver it. That is not altruism unless you think you have no interest in punishing the guilt for horrific crimes against your fellow citizens. In which case, leave a letter someplace so that in case you are ever the victim of some terrorist action, the rest of us can know that you think us finding and killing the perps in a nonsensical act of altruism and you would be offended by it.

In the future, deal with what is actually being said in the post before you just write random gibberish.

Anonymous said...

Wars against Irak, Afganistan and Libia are as invasion of Poland in 1939 by Stalin , Hitler and Slowvakia