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Cole’s Case For Intervention In Libya


Juan Cole has another argument in favor of Allied intervention into Libya. As an open-to-persuasion skeptic, I would like to raise a couple points. First, I’m suspicious of this characterization of the opposing arguments:

1. Absolute pacifism (the use of force is always wrong)
2. Absolute anti-imperialism (all interventions in world affairs by outsiders are wrong).
3. Anti-military pragmatism: a belief that no social problems can ever usefully be resolved by use of military force.

We can quibble over whether this is a litany of strawmen — I suppose there are people who fall into these categories — but they certainly don’t represent counter-arguments in their strongest form. Let’s make clear up front that there are no absolutes, that there are cases in which military attacks by world powers can be justified on humanitarian grounds. It’s still neither here not there in terms of whether any particular intervention is justified. I agree that every potential intervention needs to be evaluated on its own merits. So how strong is the case here? Well, here’s the key point for me:

Assuming that NATO’s UN-authorized mission in Libya really is limited ( it is hoping for 90 days), and that a foreign military occupation is avoided, the intervention is probably a good thing on the whole, however distasteful it is to have Nicolas Sarkozy grandstanding.

This may well be right. But, er, that’s a hell of an assumption, isn’t it? What happens if 90 days of bombing doesn’t succeed in removing Qaddafi? What happens if a more successful revolution leads to anarchy or civil war or a regime that key officials in the United States government don’t like? Obviously, if you assume that the intervention will be short and effective it’s easy to make the case, but I don’t think that it’s prudent to make that assumption. I think we need to consider what happens in non-best-case scenarios, and certainly Cole doesn’t have good answers to these questions. So I hope that he’s right that the strikes on Libya will be short-term and efficacious, but I remain skeptical.

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