Humanitarians R Us: it's a label, not a policy

Humanitarians R Us

by digby

People keep asking me if I support Dennis Kucinich's call to impeach Obama for failing to get congressional authorization for the operation in Libya. Actually no, and not because Obama wears my team jersey. It's because I know that if he had gone to the congress to get authorization he would have gotten it, so the whole question seems a little bit irrelevant. They always do. Sometimes it's by acclamation as it was with Afghanistan or it's a little bit tougher as it was in Gulf War I. But the congress is not going to deny the president his prerogative to make war. Certainly, the Senate isn't going to do it --- they all look in the mirror every morning and see a future president and they want to be able to make their own wars when the time comes.

All this talk about process obscures the real question of whether or not we should have intervened in Libya and I have little doubt that if the great debate everyone thinks should have happened had happened, it wouldn't have changed the outcome one bit except to give the imprimatur of congress to the administration's decision. So, that's a big whatever. Process matters, but in this case, it's only barely relevant to the real question before us.

The other complaint I'm getting is that my gripe about using the "humanitarian" excuse is shallow. "Just because we can't intervene everywhere to save the people doesn't mean we can't intervene somewhere." To that I'll just say that when you use this rationale in a blatantly cynical way, you not only abuse and cheapen the whole notion of humanitarian intervention, you create even more cynicism about humanitarianism in general. Being a humanitarian only when it suits your own interest isn't humanitarianism, it's opportunism.

Gloria Borger just articulated the alleged doctrine on CNN:
This is a humanitarian operation. The president has said as have other heads of state that we can't stand by as a murderous thug kills his own people.
It's quite obvious that isn't true and they look like assholes when they say it. After all, this situation is far more clear cut. The democratically elected leader is not being allowed to take office and the defeated one is killing vast numbers of his own people creating a massive refugee crisis:
The rising violence in Ivory Coast means more people are trying to get out of the country. It’s estimated the number of displaced within Ivory Coast and refugees in neighboring countries is between 300,000 and 400,000 people.

The International Office for Migration [IOM] is helping the displaced find safe haven. Spokesperson Jemini Pandya says, “There’s been very large-scale displacement within Abidjan since fighting really increased a few weeks ago. It’s extremely difficult to be able to go and assess the real scale of the displacement because the security conditions are too bad and also because of the targeting of humanitarian aid workers.”

But she adds, “One thing that our staff on the ground in Abidjan are saying is that the city is rapidly emptying, [with people] finding any way they can to get out and escape the violence. They’re leaving on public buses, vans, cars, taxis – anything they can find basically to reach their home villages.”

“IOM has now had to also evacuate its remaining staff… in the west, where there’s been significant internal displacement…because of the conflict,” says Pandya.

It isn't just displacement:
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast says it is concerned that heavy weapons could be used against civilians as rival presidents struggle for power.

In a statement Tuesday, the mission said forces loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo are repairing an attack helicopter and preparing multiple rocket launchers for use.

The mission called the weapons "a grave threat to the civilian population" and warned Gbagbo forces that the U.N. would act if such weapons are used.

Earlier, Ivory Coast's internationally recognized president, Alassane Ouattara, called on the United Nations to authorize "legitimate force" to protect civilians.

What's the reason we can't we intervene here? If anything, this seems like a much more obvious humanitarian intervention than Libya where a spontaneous uprising to overthrow the government has not even come close to the mayhem and displacement in Ivory Coast. It's not that I think we should intervene in every humanitarian crisis. But honestly, the truth is that we don't intervene in any humanitarian crises. We intervene in places in which we have large financial and strategic interests, period. It's merely a convenience to attach a humanitarian label to it and persuade everyone that we are doing God's work instead. Even the arguments for Iraq were all wrapped up in "rape rooms" and "he gassed his own people" rhetoric. The entire debacle eventually rested on the trope "the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein."

I used to think in these terms --- using our military power for good and all that rot. But as I've grown older I've come to the conclusion that wars are almost always the wrong choice. If Hitler is sweeping across Europe, committing genocide and declaring his intention to take over the world, I'm reluctantly in. But short of that I'm always going to be extremely skeptical of motives and interest about any of these military adventures. It's rare that this extreme form of violence is used for the reasons stated and far more often than not it creates more mayhem and instability than it stops. The law of unintended consequences is never more consequential.

The reasons being stated for this one are even more unconvincing than usual. Insulting, actually. Millions of people are suffering all over the world, even here in the US. And the money that's spent to protect oilfields and our "strategic interest" in keeping people drunk on scarce resources so that the already wealthy can get wealthier would go a long way toward alleviating it. Calling these oil field protection operations "humanitarian" is Orwellian and it prevents the American people from facing the real questions before them about their own futures and how to genuinely work toward a more peaceful, equitable and decent world.

Update: Oh please
Speaking on CBS' The Early Show today, McCain twice cited the fact that Moammar Gadhafi has "American blood on his hands" as a reason the U.S. should try to oust the dictator. McCain specifically referred to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which was indeed carried out by a Libyan agent.

What McCain is apparently forgetting is that, apart from the past few weeks, the last decade has been a period of rapprochement between the United States and Libya. It started with President Bush announcing in 2003 that Gadhafi had agreed to give up his "weapons of mass destruction" programs. In 2006 Bush removed Libya from the official list of state sponsors of terrorism. In September 2008 Condoleezza Rice traveled to Libya to have talks with Gadhafi. And just a few days before the 2008 presidential election, Bush signed a settlement under which Libya compensated families of victims of Lockerbie and other 80s-era attacks.

Who else was involved in the effort to forge better ties with Gadhafi? John McCain. In August 2009 he led a delegation of senators including fellow hawks Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman on a trip to visit the Libyan leader in Tripoli. Discussed during the visit was delivery of -- get this -- American military equipment to Gadhafi (a man with American blood on his hands no less).

"We discussed the possibility of moving ahead with the provision of non-lethal defense equipment to the government of Libya," the AP quoted McCain as saying at a press conference. McCain also noted that "ties between the United States and Libya have taken a remarkable and positive turn in recent years."

Why yes, they certainly did:
24/04/2004 - 10:16:15
US president George Bush has taken huge steps to restore normal trade and investment ties with Libya, resuming oil imports and most commercial and financial activities as a reward to Muammar Gaddafi for eliminating his weapons of mass destruction.

Libya’s actions “have made our country and the world safer”, the White House said.
Update II: Matt Yglesias brings up another side to this argument which is well worth considering: who really benefits in the big picture? Did the powers that be decide they needed to draw a line somewhere --- and the universally unpopular crazy man gave them an opportunity?