Norm Geras/Normblog/March 9, 2011
Michael Walzer on Libya
Further to these recent posts on the now reviving debate about humanitarian intervention, I see that Michael Walzer has a post up on the Dissent blog, Arguing the World, in which he explains why he doesn't see military intervention as being called for in Libya at the moment. There are two strands to Michael's explanation. First, the crisis in Libya hasn't passed a point - mass murder, ethnic cleansing - that could justify intervention on humanitarian grounds. Second, following J.S. Mill, Michael doesn't think that an intervention to aid a democratic transformation can be supported or shown to square with international law; this is because, to put it briefly, as a rule people have to win democracy for themselves and not by the armed intervention of external powers.
So far so clear. But then - and most unusually from Michael - the clarity breaks down, or so it seems to me. He writes:
What if it looks as if Qaddafi is going to win? Would we be willing to go all the way with Mill and say that if the rebels lose, it's because the country isn't ready, isn't "fit," for democratic government? I don't think I am tough enough for that.
And he goes on to discuss what would be the best form of intervention - his view being that it would be an intervention by neighbouring countries. Why do I find this puzzling? Because it appears to me to go back on the very arguments Michael has himself just put forward. He must be thinking either that the threshold for justified humanitarian intervention has hitherto been set too high - if an intervention in Libya is to be carried out under that head; or that regime-change interventions to assist a democratic transformation are sometimes morally acceptable, and justifiable under international law - or morally acceptable even if not justifiable under international law. Mustn't he? But if so, why start by endorsing the principles he goes on to put in question?
Walzer Replies/March 10, 2011/Dissent:
When thinking about life and death decisions, I am inclined to worry about my own positions—and even to doubt them. Assume that we are all Millians: would we be ready to watch the killing that would follow a Qaddafi victory? (Did Mill himself ever have to contemplate anything like that?) The killing would be partisan, not genocidal, but there would be a lot of it, and it would be accompanied by imprisonment and torture on a large scale. So we need to begin now to argue about what we would want to happen then.
Maybe, at some point short of that, or just short of it, we would want to see a military intervention that denied Qaddafi his victory. Maybe not, but let’s think clearly about what “not” would mean. And if we were to decide in favor of a last minute intervention, the prime candidates to carry it out, it seems to me, are the Egyptian and Tunisian armies. Not the United States or NATO, bringing civilization and democracy to the natives, but an Arab force determined to prevent or stop the killing of Arabs. For many years, Arab political leaders have called privately for Western interventions, which they then denounced. Now that time is over, or should be, and the Libyan crisis may be the right occasion to announce its end.
Meanwhile, there is a lot we can do, and should do, to help the Libyan opposition win on its own.