Blog post

Richard Seymour and Tim Holmes advance the debate over Libyan intervention

Morgan Buck29 March 2011

Richard Seymour, author of The Liberal Defense of Murder is adding to his recent contributions to the intervention debate this week through an interview with the New Left Project. Inspired by Seymour's thoughts on the issue, the NLP's Tim Holmes put forward what looks like the first step in constructing a comprehensive examination of the situation to date. 

In the original interview, appearing on the NLP site last Sunday, Seymour discusses the argument that the motivation behind the airstrikes may be irrelevant, should they ultimately serve the greater good by, for example, leading to the downfall of Gaddafi or a "genuinely free Libya." In response, Seymour argues that not only is it "vanishingly unlikely" that the interests of the attacking states will coincide with those of the revolutionaries, but also that the use of such a tactic will very likely risk producing a stalemate, or turning those suffering civilians against the revolution. Seymour finally suggests the need for an honest cost/benefit analysis of the intervention and the motives behind it:

These are fairly huge risks that we're being asked to take with the lives and well-being of Libyans by endorsing military intervention by the imperialist states, and they're plausible enough to demand a serious accounting in the war stakes. But I haven't seen anyone who favours intervention conduct such an audit seriously.

Based on this statement, Tim Holmes has put forward what he calls "a fairly rough-and-ready attempt to conduct such an audit" by positing ten "morally relevant" areas to consider in legitimizing the use of force:

1. Ultimate motives of perpetrators

Elements of the Obama administration are keen to rehabilitate the doctrine of "humanitarian intervention". Though it appeared to have been "killed for a generation" after Iraq, [...] one major goal may be to ensure "the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this", as one administration official puts it.

2. Specific intended consequences of perpetrators

The vast amount of dissension and equivocation within official ranks likely reflects the legal "grey areas" surrounding this decision, as well as a lack of consensus on what military tactics to bring about Gaddafi's removal are permissible, or desired.

3. Likely and risked consequences

If the regime digs in its heels, however, given the relative weakness of the rebels and the current limits of Western involvement, it is entirely plausible a long, protracted and bloody conflict would surely precede any such outcome, without - or indeed with - the deployment of Western ground troops.

4. Consent of the victims

Much of the support and many calls for intervention have come from rebel sources. Yet it is often unclear exactly who the rebels represent: arguably there are broad tribal divisions between the East and West of the country at play, though some credible sources strongly contest that this plays much of a role.

5. Legality

A Presidential authorization of this attack is also undeniably unconstitutional - as Obama has himself unambiguously acknowledged when discussing the topic of Iran.

6. How much we can control

Our power, then, is a small, blunt instrument. At certain times, however, it may prove decisive in producing political "tipping points".

7. How much we can really know

The media has misled, cheerled, and constantly reinforced the myth of the West's "basic benevolence".

8. Questions of last resort

Besides the negotiating table, more assertive peaceful measures are available, including formal recognition and arming of the rebels; releasing frozen Libyan Government assets to them; tighter targeted sanctions; and isolation of the regime.

9. The minimising of violence

As already noted, coalition violence currently extends well beyond legality and proportionality, and is increasingly likely to risk civilian life as the conflict continues.

10. Opportunity costs

Arguably, the money spent on a Libyan war [...] could be better spent on desperately-needed humanitarian relief for regions of dire poverty, or on the provision of services domestically.

Visit the New Left Project to read Holmes's article in full, as well as the original interview with Richard Seymour.