by Tzvetan Todorov
(Translated from French by Teresa Lavender Fagan)
The military intervention in Libya has been met with a chorus of approval in France, resounding from all the parties represented in the Parlement, as was the case for the war in Afghanistan, as well as from various commentators. Everyone says that France has just scored a major coup. The arch-enemy is now described only with superlatives: he has become a madman, a lunatic, the executioner, the bloody tyrant, or is lowered to his roots as a “cunning Bedouin.” Euphemisms abound; proponents don’t say we should kill without remorse, but that “we must assume our responsibilities,” nor that we will try to reduce the number of corpses, but that we must proceed “without excessive destruction.” Convenient comparisons justify going to war: not intervening would be to repeat the mistakes made with Spain in 1937, Munich in 1938, Rwanda in 1994… Those who drag their feet are criticized: Germany isn’t pulling its weight; Europe is showing astonishing reluctance – unless it is its usual spinelessness. Emerging countries are guilty of not wanting to take risks – as if the warmongers in the French capital are taking any!
Granted, unlike the war in Iraq the intervention in Libya was approved by the UN Security Council. But does legality equal legitimacy? Underlying the decision is a concept that has been recently introduced: our responsibility to protect the civilian population from the actions of their own leaders. Yet from the moment this “protection” implies military intervention by another State and no longer humanitarian assistance, it is very unclear how it differs from the “right of interference” that Western countries granted themselves a few years ago. If every country decides it has the right to intervene in its neighbors’ affairs to defend the rights of an abused minority, countless wars would erupt in a matter of seconds. We need only think of the Chechens in Russia, the Tibetans in China, the Shiites in Sunni countries (and vice versa), Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, Kurds in Turkey… The Security Council would indeed need to grant authorization for such interventions. This Council, however, has one unique feature, which is also its original sin : its permanent members have veto power over all its decisions, which places them above the law they are supposed to uphold. Neither they nor the countries they choose to support can ever be brought to justice! Worse, to avoid the veto, they intervene without UN authorization, as happened in Kosovo and Iraq. The armed invasion of that country, carried out under false pretenses (the presence of weapons of mass destruction) has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead; the countries that led the invasion so far have not seen any official sanctions brought against them. The international order embodied by the Security Council establishes the rule of force, not of law.
But this time, they say, at least we are defending principles, not interests. Is that really true? France continued for a long time to support the established dictatorships in neighboring countries, Tunisia and Egypt; by now choosing to support the rebels in Libya, France hopes to improve its image. It is simultaneously demonstrating the effectiveness of its weaponry, which will strengthen its position in future negotiations. On the domestic front, waging a victorious war – in the name of Good, no less – always enhances its leaders’ popularity. Similar considerations are at play in the U.S. and Great Britain. Much has been made of the support shown by the Arab League (before it started to change its mind): it is rare that the views of this body are so appreciated by the West! If we look closer, the member states have several interests at stake in this situation. Saudi Arabia and its allies are prepared to support the Western nations against their Libyan rival, because this allows them to suppress the protest movements at home with impunity. The Saudis, not known for their democratic institutions, have already intervened militarily in Bahrain and have encouraged repression in Yemen; in these neighboring states, they have chosen to “protect” the leaders against the populations.
Colonel Gaddafi is massacring his population: shouldn’t we rejoice in being able to prevent this, regardless of the touted or hidden justifications for our actions? The problem is that war is such a powerful means that it overwhelms the ultimate end. Only video games can destroy weapons without harming the humans around them; in real wars, even the most precise “surgical strikes” cannot avoid “collateral damage,” that is, deaths, destruction, suffering. These facts lead to essential questions: will the casualties and damage be greater or lesser than if the intervention had not occurred? Wasn’t there any other way to prevent the massacre of civilians? Once started, won’t the war threaten to be waged following its own logic, rather than following the letter of the original resolution? Is it desirable to encourage civil war, or a division within the country? Won’t we jeopardize the democratic impulses of the people by making them dependent once again on former colonial powers?
There is no clean war, or just war, only inevitable wars, such as the Second World War waged by the Allies; this is not the case today. Before singing a hymn in praise of this escapade as being truly superior to all others, it would perhaps be better to ponder the lessons Goya learned two hundred years ago from another war waged in the name of Good, that of the Napoleonic regiments bringing human rights to the Spanish. Massacres committed in the name of democracy are no less horrific than those caused by faith in God or Allah, in the Leader or the Party: they all lead to the same.
Tzvetan Todorov is a historian and essayist. His latest book in English is ‘The Fear of Barbarians’ (University of Chicago Press) and in French ‘Goya à l’ombre des Lumières’(Flammarion)
Also by Todorov, published by Seagull Books.