Had the purpose of an air exclusion zone over Libya been solely to protect the people of Benghazi and of other insurgent-controlled areas in the east from being massacred by Colonel Qaddafi’s advancing forces, opposing it might still have made intellectual sense, but it would not have made moral sense, which is what should count most. Qaddafi had promised a slaughter in the evening before the United Nations authorized the Western intervention, and there was no sane reason not to take him at his word. It is one thing to be a principled anti-interventionist, or, for that matter, anti-imperialist (however much liberal interventionists in the United States, besotted as they still are with fantasies of America’s inherent goodness, may resent and reject the term). But to apply such principles mechanically to the Libyan case would have exemplified Emerson’s famous remark that a foolish consistency was the hobgoblin of small minds.
But from the beginning it has been clear that while this intervention has been couched in the language of humanitarianism and of the global good deed, invoking the so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the U.N.’s new doctrine that is supposed to govern those instances when outside powers must step in militarily to prevent tyrants from killing their own people, the more important goal has been to support the insurgency, which is to say, to bring about regime change. Had it been otherwise, the bombing could have been halted once the Libyan government attack on Benghazi had been halted. Instead, it goes on, with various French, British, and American politicians and military officials at odds mainly about how much (not whether) the bombing campaign should be widened, and whether Colonel Qaddafi is himself a legitimate target for assassination from the air.
So much for the hope that Iraq and Afghanistan might actually have taught the West anything lasting about trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun. Instead, it is as if Iraq, which, in the United States, was initially welcomed by most liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike as a war of liberation, had never happened, and, instead, we have traveled backward in time. Remember those halcyon days of the late 1990s when Tony Blair was promising the world that in the future the West would fight wars in the name of its values, not just of its interests, in effect promising that the wars of the twenty-first century would be noble wars of altruism? If you don’t, well, don’t worry: If the war in Libya is any indication, you’ll have the chance to live them all over again. Of course, the catastrophe in Iraq was supposed to have sobered us, and made even the most ardent liberal interventionists realize that Pascal’s great phrase, “He who would act the angel, acts the beast,” expresses the stark truth about what we self-flatteringly call humanitarian interventions. But instead, here we go again.
It is tempting to say that what is taking place here is some sort of Freudian “return of the repressed.” But in reality, the infatuation of liberal elites in the West with humanitarian war was barely shaken by Iraq. Many of the same activists who either opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning, or soon recanted their support for it, campaigned ardently for a military intervention in Darfur. The problem, it seemed, was not with the idea of regime change, which to be successful would have required regime change in Khartoum, even if most of the leaders of Save Darfur in the United States and SOS Darfour in Western Europe denied it, but with regime changed when practiced by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. And now, some of those liberal interventionists are in positions of power, whether formal or informal. Two of the most prominent among those who called for Western military action in Darfur played crucial roles in persuading their respective governments to start bombing in Libya. Grotesque as it may sound, though he held no government appointment, Bernard-Henri Levy played a greater role in France’s decision to spearhead the bombing campaign, which involved at least one instance of French aircraft flying close air support for a rebel column, than did the foreign minister, Alain Juppe. Samantha Power, whose book, A Problem From Hell, about the failure of the United States to prevent or halt genocide in the twentieth century, has been the touchstone for American liberal interventionists since its publication (it was a favorite of the late Richard Holbrooke), is in government, where, to give her her due, she will finally be in position to help put these ideas into practice.
This war—let us call it by its right name, for once—will be remembered to a considerable extent as a war made by intellectuals, and cheered on by intellectuals. The main difference this time is that, particularly in the United States, these intellectuals largely come from the liberal rather than the conservative side. Presumably, when the war goes wrong, they will disown it, blaming the Obama administration for having botched it, in much the same way that many neoconservatives blamed Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld for his strategic errors, rather than blaming themselves for urging a war that never had a chance of transforming Iraq in the way that they hoped. The judgment of history will almost certainly be that it was Iran, not the United States, which won that war. And Libya? Anything is possible, of course, but the odds of this war, so grandiose in terms of the moral claims made for its necessity and so incoherent in its tactics, turning out in the way its advocates are promising seem remarkably small.
But in humanitarian war, which its supporters nonetheless continue self-servingly to refuse to think of as being war, that is, as something that invariably involves the slaughter of innocents even when this slaughter takes place in a just cause (and for all the talk of “smart” weapons, war from the air is particularly prone to kill civilians), the moral good intentions of those who would wage it is somehow thought to trump all other considerations. Again, this war is no longer about protecting the people of Benghazi, if it ever was. That goal was accomplished on the first day and NATO planes could have continued to protect it as they did in Kurdistan between the end of the First Gulf War in 1991 and the beginning of the Second in 2003. Rather, it is about overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi and installing the insurgent leadership in Benghazi in his place.
Why Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, or David Cameron feel that who rules Libya is any of their affair, and why they were more intent on securing the (grudging) assent of the Arab League than the assent of their own legislatures, shows just how misguided the doctrine of humanitarian intervention really is. These leaders are more intent on imposing democracy by force than in honoring the democratic judgment of their parliaments at home. As a result, what we are left with is the angelic Caesarism of the “empire of the good”! And all with the nihil obstat of an intellectual class whose good intentions are not the solution to Power’s “problem from hell,” but rather the problem itself. Humanitarian savagery from 15,000 feet or from a missile-bearing submarine is still savagery. And the road to hell is still paved with good intentions.
David Rieff is a contributing editor for The New Republic.