Swans Commentary » swans.com May 23, 2011  



Are We A Morally Dumb Nation?
A Reply to my Critic


by Aleksandar Jokic





(Swans - May 23, 2011)   Ambassador (Retired) K. Gajendra Singh, over at The Foundation for Indo-Turkic-Studies (FITS), was kind enough to host my Op-Ed piece on Libya, "Are We A Morally Dumb Nation?," which argues that both the legal and moral presumptions of the operation "Odyssey Dawn" are indefensible. This provoked an interesting criticism by a high-ranking European military official that deserves a response. Unfortunately, an offer to engage in public debate was turned down by the other side. However, the arguments are still worth considering. So, in this piece, I propose to address the criticisms that were transmitted to me without identifying the author who shall remain nameless and will be referred to simply as "the Critic." Hence, the structure of this article will be as follows: in the next sections I will reproduce the objection, which will then be followed by my reply.

The Objection

I provide the entire text of the criticism I received with only minimal changes to protect the author's identity and make minor stylistic adjustments:

Sir, allow me to respond to the opinion piece ["Are We A Morally Dumb Nation?"]. I perfectly respect the author's opinion on ongoing events in Libya but the presentation or interpretation of facts used to substantiate his views appear in places misleading or slanted, notably regarding the political motivations and the military conduct of operations in Libya by members of the international coalition, including my own country (a "US vassal"). I propose to point out those perceptions, which in my view need to be contradicted for the sake of a healthy debate.

As is often observed when US military action is being assessed, the criticism directed at the operation in Libya is based on the preconceived but un-proven assumption that its primary motive is grabbing Libyan oil. The accusation of "US imperialism" resounds more of Pavlovian cold war-era reflexes than rational analysis of hard facts. This "trial of intentions," and the resort to an easy conspiracy theory sheds doubt on the intellectual rigor of the overall construct.

The author's reading of events is contradicted by President Obama's perceived feet-dragging before he embarked on this new campaign and by the swiftness with which he pulled US forces out of offensive missions at the fist opportunity. I acknowledge that any decision to overrule the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign Nation will inevitably lead to controversy and may always constitute a Pandora's box, but there was clearly a choice to be made between two evils. In my understanding, far from vassals caving in to the whims of their overlord, it was the French and UK governments, as well as Mrs. Clinton, who managed to convince Mr. Obama that intervening was the best -- or least bad -- course of action given the situation in Libya at the time.

Democratic leaders have to keep in phase with their public opinions if they want to get re-elected: many erstwhile European governments have re-learned the lesson at their expense after embarking on "Iraqi Freedom" against the will and gut-feeling of their peoples. In Libya, putting aside moral considerations, the French and British leaders must have been intent on averting the inevitable and devastating public outcry that would have followed a bloodbath in Benghazi and its corollary, an ensuing massive inflow of refugees on EU soil, even to the cost of sticking their necks out to a fair extent. Speculating on the very uncertain economic gains to be expected from an "aggression" campaign, as it is described, sounds like a much less credible motive: given the state of western public opinions towards operations in Afghanistan and the economic challenges facing the US and European governments, I'm convinced that the last thing our politicians want today is to be perceived as light-hearted, predatory jingoes.

One point could cast doubt on the sincerity of European motivations: why Libya and not other Arab countries in turmoil? I see three reasons for that:

(1) the scale and brutality of the repression, unequalled in other "Jasmine" stricken Arab countries. You can't promise your own population rivers of blood and then expect complacency from the International Community. Equating Qaddafi's deliberate targeting of civilians with the tragic collateral victims of the coalition's air strikes ("bombing people"!, as if they were NATO's target), almost inevitable however hard we try to avoid them, and condoning the unverifiable casualty figures given by Qaddafi's most credible public relations office is insulting, or at best a display of ignorance. Having been involved both as a potential shooter and at policy-making level in NATO and coalition operations, I can testify that precautions taken to avoid collateral go far beyond mere lip-service;

(2) geographic proximity: although outside Europe, Libya is just a few score nautical miles from Italy's and Greece's southernmost islands. It is also a maritime and cultural neighbor to all of Europe's Mediterranean Nations. This does count in the political equation, as it did in ex-Yugoslavia, to an even greater degree, during the '90s;

(3) the still vivid collective memory of past hostile actions by colonel Qaddafi towards our own populations, most notably the bombing of two airliners full of passengers: Pan Am's 747 over Lockerbie (December 21, 1988, 270 victims) as well as French carrier UTA's DC10, blown up over Niger the following year (September 19, 1989, 170 victims). It made people in France and the UK very uneasy about the recent attempt at normalization by western governments, which was arguably, in the eyes of public opinions, their greatest political sin towards Libya. Although forgiveness is necessary to heal wounds and press forward in International relations, this needs to be met with sincere repentance. Qaddafi's "conversion" to respectability has since shown it's worth and the current, more uncompromising attitude towards him is welcomed by French and British public opinions.

If the author's thesis were correct, then one might argue that France and Great Britain were morally smart to give-in to Hitler at Munich in 1938 and that UNPROFOR was morally smart to let Bosnian Serbs slaughter the population of Srebrenica under their noses in 1995.

Philosophy is a noble and indispensable human science but it has to stand the occasional reality check of an imperfect real world and human nature if it is to remain relevant. In "les mains sales" (the dirty hands), French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thus criticized Kant's philosophy of absolute morals, intellectually impeccable but practically inapplicable: "Kant has clean hands but he has no hands". Today, for better or worse, our leaders have taken on themselves to put their hands in the dirt.

I hope you will forgive the frank but candid expression of my feelings towards the article [in question]. Needless to say, all the above are strictly personal opinions and is in no way intended to reflect my government's official positions.

Yours respectfully,

[Signature removed]

The Reply

I am quite happy to respond to this criticism and consider the offered claims and argumentation. At first, the Critic talks of "misleading or slanted" presentation or interpretation of facts in my Op-Ed and intends to offer points that contradict mine for the sake of "a healthy debate." The Critic wants a "rational analysis of hard facts" yet characterizes what I have done as "an easy resort to conspiracy theory." This would be sufficient to disqualify the Critic as a participant in any kind of debate, for calling someone a conspiracy theorist in any practical context simply amounts to sending the message: "I am not talking to you." Yet, the Critic continues to engage with my text and makes some wild claims. The Critic is outraged by my use of the phrase "US imperialism" and considers this an irrational, "Pavlovian cold war reflex." The implication of his attitude is fascinating as it suggests that imperialism is a phenomenon somehow connected to the Cold War, and that since we are in the post Cold War period we are then also in the post-imperialist period -- in other words, no one engages in imperialism any more, least of which the U.S. Of course, imperialism existed before the Cold War and is equally possible in the period after it. Perhaps I should have been more precise and called the practice in question "neo-imperialism" of the US foreign policy in the post Cold War era. That the U.S. is an empire is no longer denied even in the U.S., and the goal of global domination is openly advocated.

The Critic is also irritated by the claim imputed to me that the US military action in Libya is motivated by a desire to grab Libyan oil. The Critic calls this an unproven assumption. There are two problems with this claim. First, the mere claim that something is an "unproven assumption" is insufficient to establish the truth of the contrary claim that the Critic favors (an argument to that effect would actually be required). Second, I did not claim anything so simplistic as that the U.S. wants to grab Libyan oil; all I stated is a simple, undeniable fact that this is an aggression against a nation rich in oil (and I should have added water, given the nearly completed, little known in the West, Libya's massive man-made river project). From this it does not follow that I attribute to the U.S. the intention of "grabbing Libyan oil." Perhaps what the U.S. wants is to be in control of Libyan oil, to be able to decide which companies from which countries get contracts to exploit the oil in that country, which routes of transport are used, and edge out of this market (and all of north Africa) certain countries such as, for example, China (currently invested to the tune of $18 billion in Libya). This would be consistent with the outcomes of the US aggression against Iraq where many countries lost out on lucrative contracts already in place, for example Russia and France lost at least $20 billion each, which certainly had something to do with the fact that France (and the rest of "Old Europe") were opposed to the US (and UK) aggression against Iraq. What is more, the US case for the aggression against Iraq was so clumsily argued and presented to the public, which no one demonstrated better than Dominique de Villepin, who eviscerated Secretary Powell's rationale for war in his presentation at the UN. (Of course, that was a different time, when the French approach to geopolitics was still influenced by de Gaulle's position towards NATO). Control of oil exploitation, pipelines, and ocean corridors for oil transportation can go a long ways towards understanding the US policies with respect to many other countries, such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Georgia, Saudi Arabia, etc. Now, is this my "unproven assumption," as the Critic claims, or something else? In fact, it is no assumption at all, but a conclusion of an abductive inference that proposes a hypothesis that purports to explain events that otherwise remain mysterious. This is also known as "inference to the best explanation" and we all use this reasoning all the time, including the Critic.

The Critic reasoned abductively when offering an explanatory hypothesis that the U.S. was not interested in aggressing Libya because otherwise we could not understand President Obama's "feet-dragging" before embarking on this "offensive mission." But for the Critic's reasoning to be any good there must be no better explanation of the "feet-dragging." I must point out, however, that there are plenty of competing explanations one could offer. One that would certainly displace the Critic's hypothesis is the explanation in terms of a desperate need of the U.S. -- a country that already enjoys maximally negative image in the Arab world -- not to be perceived as eagerly embarking on yet another aggression against an Arab country rich in oil. For anyone to take President Obama's feet-dragging at face value, without considering the reality of the US standing in the world, is awfully naïve if not disingenuous. Similarly, the Critic is upset that I was calling countries allied with the U.S. the vassals. He is desperate to portray the aggression against Libya as an affair -- supposedly entirely autonomous -- of the French and UK governments. According to the Critic's understanding, it then took some effort by these allies and Mrs. Clinton to convince Mr. Obama that undertaking aggression against Libya was the "least bad course of action given the situation in Libya at the time." This strains credulity on all counts. However, we can easily drop the label "vassal" as long as we understand that NATO consists of one member that is incomparably more powerful than all others (individually and collectively), and that that's of course the U.S. All other countries in NATO can be considered "lesser members." But, that is pretty much what I mean by "vassal." Hence, while lesser members may take initiatives -- even those that appear autonomous (such as, for example, the French action of effecting the capture of President Gbagbo in Ivory Coast) -- they are unlikely to take place without the blessing of the uber-member (hence Mr. Obama's immediate congratulation to the French -- and not the supposed "republican" forces of Ouattara's henchman Soro -- for the Abidjan action). In the end, it is entirely implausible that the "feet-dragging" was genuine. Finally, there was nothing particularly unusual about the events in Libya at the time, which would have forced the rush to attack. In fact, what is particularly unusual is for the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1973 without undertaking any fact-finding mission to Libya, and then to immediately go on the attack, led by the U.S., that slammed 122 cruise missiles in just the first night.

The Critic is absolutely right to point out that the last thing the Western politicians "want today is to be perceived as light-hearted, predatory jingoes." But the Critic is confused to think that this then proves that they are acting purely (or even partially) on moral grounds. It only shows why they are so desperate to present their adventures in "global" intervention in moral terms, and actually fund legions of apologists to come up with ideological constructs such as "humanitarian intervention," "responsibility to protect" (also known by its very masculine-sounding alphanumeric acronym, "R2P," a quintessentially 21st century hybrid of adolescent texting and military parlance to render what is supposed to be a moral doctrine!), "ending impunity," "preventing genocide," or "just war theory" -- all mere euphemisms for aggression, the supreme crime in international law. (As Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Trials, stated: "aggression...is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.") However, this Orwellian language no longer serves to cover the illegality of attacking other countries -- it was openly admitted by everyone, politicians (like Prime Minister Blair or President Clinton) or generals (think Wesley Clark), that the attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 was illegal, but the language of "humanitarian intervention" served the purpose of presenting this illegal act as "good," "legitimate," or "necessary." Thus the aggression against Yugoslavia ushered in the era of the US-led military actions against other countries that are "illegal but good." And the public bought it in 1999, and in 2003, and after a longer break, the attempt is made again with the aggression -- now authorized by a Security Council Resolution that omits to mention a threat against international peace and security -- against Libya undertaken under the "moral" or quasi-legal umbrella of R2P. Whether the justification will fly again, we shall see, but for now it appears to be working, certainly the Critic is buying it; and is opposed to my use of the term "aggression" putting it always in quotation marks. I am not preventing the Critic and others from calling it whatever they want; the thing to realize is that the entire nomenclature of military actions listed above and developed since the end of the Cold War are just linguistic ways to mask the reality of the underlying process: the decriminalization of aggression (when undertaken by powerful and rich against the weaker states from the periphery).

The Critic ought to be congratulated for bravely attempting to answer the difficult question: Why intervene in Libya and not in other countries (though the reference is only to other Arab countries)? The Critic gives three reasons, none of which is any good. First, the allegation is that the scale of brutality in Libya was unequalled to the violence in other countries. This sort of comparative judgment is pointless when it comes to trying to justify attacking Libya, for it only works under the assumption that an intervention just had to happen somewhere, hence it is justified to go into the country that was having the highest level of violence. But there is no evidence at all that the threshold of violence was particularly high, and what is bothersome is that the Critic continues to refer to "civilians" being targeted by security forces of the country when everyone has long realized that those were not peaceful protestors but armed rebels, and some have alleged that the rebels were armed by NATO countries just as was the case with KLA in Kosovo. The canard of "Qaddafi's deliberate targeting of civilians" has to stop; it is beyond irresponsible at this point. The Critic finds my phrase "bombing people" unbearable "as if they were NATO's target" and thinks that what solves everything is to label civilians killed by NATO: "tragic collateral victims." But this is wrong too. (The NATO often-repeated term "collateral damage" was voted the worst choice of words of the year 1999 by the association of German linguists.) As the example of bombing Yugoslavia has shown, there were plenty of deliberately-targeted civilian installations. Isn't bombing a TV station during a broadcast a deliberate hit on a civilian target? The Critic also dismisses the claim that there were already hundreds of civilian casualties in Libya as a ploy by Qaddafi's public relations office. But NATO too has a public relations office that would promote just the claims the Critic makes. However it begs the question to take NATO's self-interested claims as more credible than those made by the other warring party, particularly as we know that the first casualty of war is the truth. But, we do have reasons to mistrust NATO and the Western sources more because of their past record of deception. Think about the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or the wild claims of a hundred thousand men killed in a football stadium in Pristina (Secretary William Cohen's invention). Examples are legion. The Critic's assurances that when it comes to NATO bombing other countries "precautions taken to avoid collateral go far beyond mere lip-service" also miss the point. There is no reason to reject this claim, but this is irrelevant since the damage in the countries under US-NATO attack cannot be considered in terms of targets hit, but also in terms of what is being dropped. Depleted uranium contained in most "smart" ordinances remains in the soil and water for centuries, causing damage in the form of cancers not only to the current civilian populations but to countless future generations. Hence, while even the worst dictators who allegedly target civilians cause death and destruction in the present, NATO goes on killing for centuries.

The Critic's second stated reason for attacking Libya is geographic proximity to Europe. If we recall that the Critic's question was why Libya and not other "Jasmine" stricken Arab countries was attacked, we can appreciate a total lack of sense in this answer. How much closer to Europe is Libya than Tunisia or Egypt? And if proximity matters, why is the U.S. involved with most of the bombing runs and cruise missiles launched even though it is half a world away? But, more importantly, why should proximity to Europe actually matter (particularly if the justification is given in terms of R2P)? According to the Critic, this matters because it is important to prevent "massive inflow of refugees on EU soil." Now the idea of bombing countries to prevent refugees from those countries from coming to Europe is a kind of humanitarianism fully indistinguishable from the creeping xenophobia (even racism) we are observing precisely in those states that have recently expressed similar concerns (e.g., Berlusconi's Italy, and President Sarkozy's recent initiatives against Roma people and the wearing of the Burq'a and the Niqab).

The Critic's third reason -- the memory of Qaddafi's alleged past wrongs towards Westerners -- makes even less sense than the previous two reasons for attacking Libya now, since it speaks nothing to the timing of the aggression. The Critic believes that the memory of the long-passed Qaddafi wrongs that we Westerners chose for decades to ignore got activated again when Qaddafi started allegedly killing his own people. This is terribly confused thinking: Is the point that we are capable of empathy with others only if what they are going through reminds us of what we suffered in the past? Or is it that current events reminded us that we should be angry at Qaddafi for the supposed past wrongs he inflicted on us? If this were really the case it would make the current war even worse than it seems, for it would render it a punitive war, a classic example of something morally and legally impermissible.

The Critic's attempt to reduce my position presented in the Op-Ed to absurdity is also unsuccessful. The claim is that if my thesis is correct, "then one might argue that France and Great Britain were morally smart to give-in to Hitler at Münich in 1938 and that UNPROFOR was morally smart to let Bosnian Serbs slaughter the population of Srebrenica under their noses in 1995." My claim that the UN cannot issue indulgences for aggression does not imply anything about Germany in 1938 or Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. The Critic is making a mistake with both examples. By invoking Hitler the Critic violates Godwin's law, and gets the Srebrenica episode wrong by characterizing it as a "slaughter of the population." We must remember that Srebrenica was not a demilitarized zone; Bosnian Muslims there were very well armed, making frequent killing excursions to surrounding Serb villages to commit unspeakable atrocities. If one were to take a look at the map of Srebrenica one could easily see that there is only one narrow path that makes it accessible for an attacking army and the city could have been defended for months. The only reason Srebrenica fell was the order Muslim armed men in Srebrenica got from Sarajevo to abandon the village and make their way to the Muslim-held territory with their weapons. Many of those combatants were captured or killed by Serb forces, while women, children, and elderly were transferred to the Muslim-held territory in air-conditioned buses. Hence, the Srebrenica example also backfires. But even if we suppose that the militarily and economically weak France and England should have done something against Hitler in 1938 or the Dutch with UNPROFOR in 1995 Bosnia, what is supposed to follow from this about Libya in 2011? Is the Critic saying that Qaddafi is the same as Hitler (committing a reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy)? That would be irresponsible propaganda and an insult to all victims and survivors of the Holocaust and all other victims of Hitler.

Finally, I must note that in the last comment the Critic reminded me that philosophy and football (some call it "soccer") have something deep in common. When it comes to football everyone feels competent to judge. Is there an Argentinean or a Frenchman who doesn't think they would have done better as coaches of their national teams in South Africa than Maradona or Raymond Domenech? Similarly, people untutored in philosophy find it perfectly reasonable to lecture even professional philosophers in philosophy. Thus the Critic had no quarrels to set me straight in philosophical matters as well, and stated that "in les mains sales ("the dirty hands"), French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thus criticized Kant's philosophy of absolute morals, intellectually impeccable but practically inapplicable: "Kant has clean hands but he has no hands." Little does the critic know how foolish this sounds! How sad to see Sartre and Kant mentioned in the same sentence, let alone to see Sartre quoted (from a dreary play he wrote, of all things) ridiculing Kant in an utterly meaningless formulation with no philosophical content. But, it is the final conclusion that supposedly follows from this that is most bothersome. The critic is happy that "today, for better or worse, our leaders have taken on themselves to put their hands in the dirt." I say that if this "putting hands in the dirt" means aggressing other countries, then it is definitely for the worse!


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Aleksandar Jokic is a professor at Portland State University where he teaches courses in moral philosophy and international justice.   (back)


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Published May 23, 2011