The just fight not fought
That’s the title of my Fin column from 1 September, which I meant to post earlier. It’s over the fold
The just fight not fought
In most respects, the outcome of the revolution in Libya have been as good as could reasonably be expected. Gaddafi is gone and, even if he finds temporary refuge with some friendly fellow-dictator, will almost certainly end his days in a prison cell somewhere. While the fighting has been bloody, it has probably cost less lives than if Gaddafi had been allowed to carry out his threats to hunt down his opponents, ‘alley by alley’.
While there is no guarantee that Gaddafi’s departure will be followed by the emergence of a democratic, or even stable government, success or failure will be primarily up to Libyans themselves. The NATO countries have avoided the near-certain disaster of becoming occupying powers.
Finally, by comparison with other recent wars, the Libya effort looks cheap. Reports suggest that the cost to the US, UK and other European members of NATO will be around $1 billion each. The destruction and disruption of economic activity within Libya must be many billions more. But even total costs of $10 billion are insignificant compared to the trillion dollar costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no real end in sight in either case.
By the standards of military spending, then, the $1 billion the US spent on the Libyan war is a derisory sum But it is the same amount that the US gave last year to global efforts to fight malaria and TB, largely preventable diseases that kill millions of people every year and disable tens of millions more. It is twice as much as the US has given to relief efforts for the East African famine which has already claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Similar calculations could be made for the other NATO countries. Indeed, the same is true of Australia. We were happy to spend $1 billion for the liberation of Timor, and hundreds of millions more to redeploy troops in the wake of civil disorder in 2008. Yet our annual development assistance to Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world, is barely $100 million a year.
Of course, it would have been terrible to allow Gaddafi to murder thousands of his citizens as he threatened to do. More generally, it is hard to stand by and watch crimes like Gaddafi’s being committed. The urge to use force to prevent such crimes is almost irresistible.
And it is here that the big danger from the Libyan war arises. The success of the Libya campaign will encourage yet more military interventions, some of which are bound to be disasters like that in Iraq.
Already there is talk of an ‘Obama doctrine’, in which Libya will serve as a template for future NATO operations, conducted at long distance, and with minimal risk of casualties on the NATO side.
In this respect, the example of Libya is far less encouraging than it might seem. After the sudden collapse of Gaddafi’s resistance, those who predicted an endless stalemate are looking a bit foolish. Nevertheless, the NATO campaign took nearly six months to weaken Gaddafi to the point where the rebels could prevail. The crucial constraint was the need to avoid civilian casualties.
The US, in its drone campaigns against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, has been much more willing to undertake attacks where civilians are, or may be, killed.
As a result, the US campaign has killed dozens of leading figures in both Al Qaeda and the Taliban, along with hundreds, if not thousands, of rank-and-file jihadists. On the other hand, there is a seemingly endless supply of replacements. Undoubtedly, many of these recruits are motivated by the desire to avenge family members and friends killed in earlier raids.
So, the advocates of military intervention need to face the fact that, if the killing of innocent civilians is unacceptable, such interventions will be costly and the outcomes uncertain. On the other hand, if civilian casualties are treated as inevitable ‘collateral damage’, interventions may achieve their military goals quickly, but then fail politically as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Opponents of intervention must accept that their position means that the crimes of dictatorial regimes will often go unpunished. Even if there is no better alternative, this is a very bad outcome. But it is far worse that the world allows the daily deaths of thousands, many of them children, from entirely preventable causes.