Perhaps the liberals would soon have returned to their more traditional interest in international institutions; perhaps the conservatives would have gotten out of the human rights business altogether; perhaps not. In any case the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 altered—or scrambled—people's thinking. The next American war was an unusual operation: a mission to overthrow a government (the Taliban) that almost nobody recognized as legitimate, in order to deprive a belligerent non-state actor (al-Qaida) of a staging ground. Realists on the left—few remained on the right—argued for a narrowly defined police action to root out al-Qaida. Supporters of all-out war, soon the only respectable position, invoked the liberation of Afghan women as a bonus legitimation. And a year and a half later came Iraq. The war was sold to the public under many pretexts, but for liberal hawks the dominant reason to invade was Saddam Hussein's former crimes (and potential future crimes) against his people. There was no question that from a humanitarian perspective a world without Saddam would be a better world. And we were going to take him out.
In retrospect, it's easy to see that the argument over humanitarian intervention that should have taken place in the years after Kosovo was replaced and muddled by an argument over the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. In 2000–01, a high-powered international commission convened to discuss what the international community should do in the event of a human rights crisis in a failing state; one of their recommendations was that the concept of "humanitarian intervention" be scrapped, as being needlessly prejudicial (like "pro-life"), and replaced with the more capacious, less necessarily violent "responsibility to protect." The group's report was humane and intelligent, though not without problems; it was also presented before the U.N. Security Council in December 2001, at which point it had been "OBE," as they say in Washington—overtaken by events. The same happened with Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, the summa theologica of liberal interventionist historiography, which was published in 2002. The book immediately became part of the debate over Iraq, with George W. Bush famously scribbling NOMW ("not on my watch") in a memo outlining its arguments. Not long after, he launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The argument over pre-emptive war was decided, resoundingly, against, though not because Stephen Holmes wrote essays in the London Review of Books or Jacques Rancière contributed an elegant elaboration of Hannah Arendt's argument about rights in the South Atlantic Quarterly (subscription required). The argument was decided by the 126,000 or so Iraqis killed during the U.S. invasion and in the civil war that followed. No one will be invading a terrible but stable regime to hang its leader anytime soon; at least we won't. Now, in 2011, we are bringing the troops gradually home from Afghanistan and Iraq, the results mixed. Neither war was waged for human rights, and it seems clear that humanitarianism shouldn't have been part of the discussion, not in the way it was. How humanitarian is it to unleash one civil war and reignite another?
In Libya, we find ourselves faced with a more classic, '90s-style intervention. The background could not be more stark: A courageous rebellion against a brutal and unbalanced 40-year dictatorship was inspired by the nearby uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike the dictators of those countries, Muammar Qaddafi gave no thought to stepping down. The rebels armed themselves and began to march toward Tripoli, capturing several towns on the way. They carried Kalashnikovs and RPGs. Qaddafi's days were numbered! But his army had jets, and tanks, and heavy artillery. Once it began a counteroffensive, the rebels proved powerless. They retreated and retreated, until Qaddafi's forces reached the outskirts of Benghazi, the largest city in the Libyan east and the heart of the rebellion. Qaddafi took to the radio. "It's over," he told the rebels. "We are coming tonight. Prepare yourselves. We will find you in your closets. We will show no mercy and no pity." People on the ground began to predict the massacre of Benghazi. They even used the word genocide, if only to disclaim it: "Not a slaughter amounting to genocide," clarified the New York Review of Books, "but almost certainly a bloodbath." (And what was the exact word these exquisite splitters of hairs had in mind for the killing resulting from NATO bombardment?) TheNew Yorker's understated Jon Lee Anderson was in Benghazi as Qaddafi's army approached. He had been watching the hapless rebels for weeks, growing increasingly alarmed at their inadequate arms and training. Now artillery could be heard on the edge of town; in the city's lone functioning Internet cafe the young people updated their Facebook profiles. Social media weren't going to help them now. "The war was finally coming to Benghazi," Anderson wrote.
And then it didn't. NATO jets swooped in, forcing Qaddafi's army back. Benghazi was saved. Nor was it a unilateral mission. The Arab League had sought the intervention; none other than Lebanon, home of Hezbollah (still furious at Qaddafi for the "disappearing" of a Lebanese Shiite chief in the late '70s), sponsored the resolution in the U.N. Security Council. The White House had the finesse to "lead from behind," as they put it. And the rebels, having taken several cities in the first weeks of the uprising, had established what international law calls "belligerent rights"—they were a force that could claim some legitimacy both inside and outside the country. Many of the arguments that should have given pause to American policymakers before the Iraq war, and to some extent during the Kosovo bombing, were moot here. This intervention was U.N.-approved, and seemed to emerge from a genuine concern for the casualties that would have ensued had Qaddafi's forces been allowed to proceed into Benghazi. (A more realpolitik consideration was to place the U.S., belatedly, on the side of the Arab Spring; we would be less resented as the old enabler of Mubarak if we were also the newfoe of Qaddafi.) Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article describing the days leading up to Obama's decision for war singled out Samantha Power, senior director for multilateral affairs on Obama's National Security Council, as one of the motors for the intervention. America was finally choosing values over money.
And yet somehow it gave one a toothache—like the toothache Vronsky had at the end of Anna Karenina, when he went off to Belgrade to humanitarianly aid the Orthodox Christians in their uprising against the Turks. Wars waged by the U.S. are inevitably imperialist; that is part of the toothache. But are they also irredeemably so? Can the local good—the protection of these people or that city—never outweigh the global problem that human rights are, at best, invoked inconsistently and hypocritically, and at worst to excuse any and every war? Humanitarian warfare, clearly bad in principle, often looks good from the standpoint of a particular people at a particular moment, when they are threatened with death. And so the temperamental opponent of intervention can come to feel that while in general he opposes this kind of thing, well, in this case he guesses he supports it—and in that case too, and the next one. He can come to feel like somebody who has principles only for the sake of suspending them. This was the real cause of the toothache—it was déjà vu all over again. In general, you reject humanitarian war—but have you ever met one you didn't initially like? For liberals or leftists who neither automatically support nor automatically oppose all interventions, the Libya war has prompted something paradoxical: mixed feelings in especially pure form. Here the humanitarian motive for intervening has seemed more genuine and decisive than in any prior case. And the chances of doing real good looked favorable. Yet we've got to stop doing these things!
What has been the result? NATO almost immediately expanded the concept of "civilian protection" granted in the U.N. resolution to include regime change—what safety could there be for the rebels if Qaddafi stayed in power? Again, it was hard to argue: Qaddafi was a maniac and a murderer. But Qaddafi held on. One of his residences was bombed, killing a son and several grandchildren, and still he held on. The rebels, while increasing in number and confidence, did not suddenly transform themselves into a well-armed, well-trained fighting force, and militarily a stalemate ensued. Here we were again: An idea that on the face of it was reasonable, and in a certain way "humane," was leading to further deaths, further damage to a country's infrastructure, and a political situation in which the rebels, emboldened by the NATO jets (and, eventually, attack helicopters), refused to negotiate until Qaddafi was gone. Meanwhile the International Criminal Court, the pride and joy of the liberal interventionists, filed suit against Qaddafi for crimes against humanity, thereby putting him beyond the pale. How could you negotiate with someone with nothing to lose? So a nonmilitary solution to a conflict that, Obama said, would be a matter of "days, not weeks," is, as of this writing, further away than ever, even after five months of bombing.