Libya, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan: what should inform deployment of force?

To the list of countries in the title one might add Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and a host of others. In some of these cases the West has intervened militarily with, let’s just say, mixed results, whereas in others it has not. It is interesting to reflect on these various actions and inactions in the light of the increasingly urgent demands of many in the West for some kind of military intervention against Colonel Gaddafi as he begins to retake Libya from the “rebels” and shows signs of doing so both brutally and quickly.

This post is not intended to be some kind of contribution to international diplomacy, nor an attempt to formulate a new doctrine to underpin British or anyone else’s foreign policy. More it’s a response to what seems to me a remarkable moral and intellectual inconsistency amongst those now urging no-fly zones and regime change in Libya, who in many cases seem to be exactly the same people who’ve basked in moral superiority over the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the subsequent morass in which the West now finds itself in both countries.

Personally I’ve always taken a pretty cynical approach to this. Notwithstanding the language of moral force that both sides in these debates have used to formulate their arguments, I have never believed morality has had much to do with it. The mythical “ethical foreign policy” is just that. So I make no apology for the following schema for determining whether or not the West will invade or otherwise intervene militarily in an international crisis. The list is in decreasing order of likelihood relative to some crude aspects of the country that might become the victim or the beneficiary, according to taste, of Western military interest. The country has or is:

  • white citizens in danger, and also some strategic significance
  • brown citizens in danger, and a lot of fossil fuel reserves
  • white citizens in danger, but no strategic significance
  • a place where Western holiday-makers might like to go, or have perhaps bought second homes
  • black citizens in danger, and some mineral deposits of interest
  • black citizens in danger, no strategic relevance, but most Western people have heard of it and can pronounce it
  • black citizens in danger, but Western people have never heard of it, don’t know where it is, can’t pronounce it, and don’t give a toss

It now occurs to me that we can construct an analogous list which can be used to predict whether Western people generally, and the Twitterati in particular, will call for military action from their governments, or berate them for taking such action. In this case the list is is descending order of the likelihood of calls for military action, and ascending order of the likelihood of moral outrage at military intervention. The country has or is:

  • non-white citizens with lots of access to mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, or Al-Jazeera
  • a dictator hitherto supported by the West
  • a country about which America doesn’t seem to know what to do
  • important strategic significance in the supply of fossil fuels, about which the Western citizens concerned are in denial
  • the good or bad luck to require an intervention that is likely to be led by America
  • black citizens in danger, but Western people have never heard of it, don’t know where it is, can’t pronounce it, and don’t give a toss

So what am I saying? Simply this. That foreign policy has at best a tangential relationship to anything remotely connected with ethics or morality. And that many of us who are citizens of Western countries are not as honest with ourselves as we might be about what foreign policy we would like our governments to pursue. We express our outrage at the way fossil fuel distorts our strategic judgement, but want to fill up our cars cheaply and without restriction. We want to urge our governments to bomb Colonel Gaddafi’s air defence systems, whilst continuing to play the moral card in condemnation of Tony Blair and George Bush who did just that in the case of Saddam. I’m not raising that issue as a means of expressing my support for the Iraq war, but simply to ask why that war against that tyrant was so self-evidently immoral, whilst a similar exercise against another tyrant is so morally pure.

If there’s one lesson about foreign policy I think we should learn, it’s this: if it seems obvious where right lies, we’re almost certainly wrong.

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One thought on “Libya, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan: what should inform deployment of force?

  1. Pingback: Don’t be fooled – the Libyan no-fly zone has very little to do with humanitarian angst « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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