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Libyan Bloodshed Mars Wilsonian Joy

In a predictable but disheartening development in the Libyan revolution, revenge attacks by rebel forces are sweeping the country. One main target appears to be migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa. The NYT has the story:

…rebels were turning their wrath against migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, imprisoning hundreds for the crime of fighting as “mercenaries” for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi without any evidence except the color of their skin.

Many witnesses have said that when Colonel Qaddafi first lost control of Tripoli in the earliest days of the revolt, experienced units of dark-skinned fighters apparently from other African countries arrived in the city to help subdue it again.

Since Western journalists began arriving in the city a few days later, however, they have found no evidence of such foreign mercenaries.

Looking back on the NATO mission in Libya, historians will likely welcome the end of the Great Loon’s reign of terror, but there may have been more of a ‘bloodbath shift’ than a ‘bloodbath prevention’ at work.  The list of innocent dead is different thanks to NATO’s intervention, but when all is said and done it may not be much shorter than it would have been.  And, of course, while an actual as opposed to hypothetical bloodbath has been taking place in Syria, NATO stands aside.

Writing a week ago in Foreign Policy, veteran foreign correspondent Keith Richburg reflected on decades of covering revolutions:

There is the celebratory gunfire as the liberators toast their surprising victory — without realizing that Newton’s law of gravity also applies to bullets fired from AK-47s. There are the portraits and posters of the fallen dictator, once ubiquitous on walls and in houses, now dragged into the streets for stomping. There are the reports of holdouts, “pockets of resistance,” “loyalists,” or “die-hards,” who will start firing on the liberators and spoil the party. The palace, compound, or headquarters will be combed through for curios or evidence of past atrocities. Secret prison sites will be found. Then come the inevitable questions about a breakdown in law and order, revenge killings, and whether the newly victorious force is really capable of governing.

History doesn’t offer that many happy endings.  Velvet revolutions are the exceptions rather than the rule.  Wilsonian interventions rarely lead to Wilsonian outcomes.  Countries with violent, miserable pasts rarely transform overnight into happy and peaceful democratic states.

Via Meadia could not be happier that the Great Loon is out of power, and we wish the Libyans the greatest possible joy.  But the bloodshed that accompanied the intervention and continues as revenged crazed fighters gun innocent blacks down in the streets should be a sober reminder of the limits of good intentions.  Wars for strategic advantage have their difficulties and ambiguities as well, but in general Libya has confirmed our sense that the case for humanitarian intervention is almost always weaker than it looks — and the risks and costs are usually greater than they appear.

Humanitarian crises can be an additional grounds for military action, and in doubtful cases can tip the balance toward war, but we remain convinced that war is the most expensive and least effective form of foreign aid.  Partly because public support for such wars is usually thin, presidents fighting Wilsonian wars generally must fight with one hand tied behind their back — and air power is the only really effective tool that they can use.  In the Kosovo and Libyan cases we have had the good fortune to win on the cheap; one of these days we are going to get into a humanitarian war that we can’t win without a real effort.  The humanitarian as well as the strategic costs of a lost humanitarian war could be immense, and a president is going to have to choose between escalation and defeat under deeply unfavorable circumstances.

Our advice to future presidents confronting this kind of choice: think and think again before starting something you may be unable to stop.

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  • Dave Cavena

    One wonders if, indeed, we “won,” “on the chaep,” or otherwise, Dr. Mead.

    The Administration’s purpose, as stated, was to avoid bloodshed. The result seems to be at least as much, and possibly more, bloodshed. On the metric of avoidance of bloodshed – which was our goal, not ideology or regime change, right? – if bloodshed has been increased by our intervention, then we have failed in our stated goal, not won.

    And now we have the ultimate historical irony: After decades of discussion, blame, excoriation by Blacks of American presidents ignoring mass casualties in black Africa simply because of the race of the victims, while journeying all over the globe to protect non-Blacks, America now has in-office its first Black president… and his undeclared “war,” his non-Congressionally-authorized “kinetic” response, his anti-leftist foreign intervention, has resulted not only in not saving Black Africans, but in actually increasing their casualties.

  • Fred

    So the Libyans are slaughtering each other already, eh? I’m having a heart attack from not surprise.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I agree that most revolutions fail, and that most of the Arab Spring revolutions will simply be the replacement of one Tyrant for another, when the Tyrant falls at all. But cultures change at glacial speeds, and as an early result of the American Cultural Attack in Iraq, the Arab Spring can only be seen as a Victory. The Islamic cultures now seek to see Tyrants receiving justice from cages in court rooms, and purple fingers raised in victorious democracy. The frozen and stagnate moribund Islamic cultures of the Middle East, are moving in our direction. And while the Islamo fascists like the Moslem Brotherhood may be able to pretend to lead the parade from time to time, they have already lost.

  • Bard Raptor

    Wonderful post. I was let down, however, by the timid final paragraph

    “Our advice to future presidents confronting this kind of choice: think and think again before starting something you may be unable to stop.”

    I am sure Team Obama thought a lot about about this. Can Via Media post its real opinion of what should have been done?

  • Fred

    Dream on JL. The Middle East will continue to alternate between anarchy and tyranny at least for the foreseeable future. My own opinion is that they will never give up their “loved Egyptian night” as Kipling put it. They are like children, if they don’t have a strong man kicking butt, they’re lost. All they’ll do is slaughter each other. They simply don’t have the cultural and historical wherewithal for democracy. I doubt they ever will.

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