A Limitless Illiberal Crusade

In Morgenthau’s Six Principles of Foreign Policy, he warned of the dangers that might arise from policy rooted in morality. He suggested that international moral crusades could become unlimited in scope and scale, drawing America into a state of perpetual intervention. He was also an early detractor of the Vietnam war, seeing it as a conflict that in no way involved the interests of the United States. Time and the war would prove Morgenthau’s concerns correct and yet for decades America has taken on the mantle of serving as world police, a self-appointed defender of liberal democracy. Acting in dozens of sovereign nations to influence the political and economic environments within, America’s morality has led them to conflict time and time again. But is America really on a moral crusade, naively believing in the possibility of global social reform? Or is liberal humanitarianism a facade and American foreign policy mere packaging for nationalistic and economic interests. By using a few contemporary examples, I hope to demonstrate the bad faith of these efforts and why we should always be wary of humanitarian crusades.

In 2011, just after the murder of Muammar Qaddafi, Benjamin Valentino, an Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth University who specializes in political violence and genocide, wrote a post-mortem of modern American interventionism with regards to humanitarian and fiscal efficiency titled, “The True Cost of Humanitarian Intervention.” He argues that the benefits of humanitarian campaigns, even in best case scenarios, are dwarfed by the costs in both economic price and sum human suffering. The main critique of non-interventionist policy is that with said intervention, lives would be lost to violence and genocide, but Valentino says contrary to this that, “Abandoning humanitarian intervention in most cases would not mean leaving victims of genocide and repression to their fate. Indeed, such a strategy could actually save far more people, at a far lower price.” (1). He found that, “aiding defenseless civilians has usually meant empowering armed factions claiming to represent these groups, groups that are frequently responsible for major human rights abuses of their own” (Valentino 3). These factions often use their new arms to wage tribalistic campaigns against neighboring ethnic or religious groups, further destabilizing regions.  He also found that air strikes disproportionately target civilians compared with other uses of force. “In Kosovo, in addition to between 700 and several thousand Serbian military deaths, Human Rights Watch estimates that NATO air strikes killed more than 500 civilians.” (Valentino 3). The efforts of interventionists can also change the perception of victims groups, as “Foreign military interventions can change victims from being viewed as a nuisance into being seen as powerful and traitorous enemies, potentially capable of exacting revenge, seizing power, or breaking away from the state.” (Valentino 4). Democracy forced upon a populace can also fail to be seen as such, but rather a tendril of western imperialist control and influence. Perhaps most notably, Valentino notes that the cost-per-life saved of humanitarian intervention has skyrocketed over the decades, and that military action is always less cost efficient than material and infrastructure aid. “Each of the 220 Tomahawk missiles fired by the U.S. military into Libya, for example, cost around $1.5 million. In Somalia, a country of about 8.5 million people, the final bill for the U.S. intervention totaled more than $7 billion. Scholars have estimated that the military mission there probably saved between 10,00 and 25,00 lives. To put it in the crudest possible terms, this meant that Washington spent between $280,000 and $700,000 for each Somali is spared.” (Valentino 5). “Three strategies offer the prospect of helping more people with a much lower moral, political, and economic cost: investing in international public health initiatives, sending relief aid to victims of natural disasters and famines, and assisting refugees fleeing violent conflict. Millions more lives could be saved if the billions of dollars spent on humanitarian interventions were instead spent on these efforts.” (Valentino 6). In terms of efficiency, “measles vaccination would be 3,000 times as cost-effective as military intervention in Somalia.” (Valentino 6). Ultimately, he argues for the importance of humanitarian aid but insists we can do a better job of making sure the aid we give actually assists the victims of violence and prevents from further destabilization of regions. To demonstrate how these complications in military intervention play out in an actual conflict we will look first to the example of Kosovo.

The Kosovo war of 98’ was a military conflict between the Yugoslavian government and a group of Kosovar Albanians known as the Kosovo Liberation Army that lasted just over a year. NATO and the United States intervened in the conflict calling it a humanitarian war that would be lauded as a gold star example of how intervention was meant to be done, but even at the time some had their doubts. Post-mortems of the Kosovo war, such as “The Small War That Wasn’t” by Cameron Abadirevealed that the humanitarian fallout of their intervention was far worse than what was reported. First, their campaign against the government involved US and NATO forces arming and “supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)–a group that U.S. officials had previously described as terrorist.” (Abadi 2). This support was predicated on preventing further human rights abuses by government forces, however “Intelligence agencies privately warned that the KLA was trying to provoke Serbian massacres in hopes of persuading NATO to support its bid for independence.” (Abadi 2). Unsurprisingly, “after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 helped evict Serbian forces from Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army turned on the Serbian civilians remaining in the province and in the neighboring Macedonia, killing hundreds and forcing thousands to flee.” (Valentino 3). In addition, American bombing runs destroyed a Chinese embassy, killing three nationals and sparking international tensions between China and the US not forgotten to this day. “The Chinese government declared it a ‘barbaric attack’ and seemed to encourage, and even help organize, the protests that erupted across China.” (Abadi 3). This coupled with America’s military actions so close to their old rival’s borders would become the foundation of the new “great power” struggle between Russia, China and the US. While the establishment saw Kosovo as the definition of a success, others saw it as “a war of choice marginal to the interests of major powers, including the United States.” (Abadi 3). The goal of preventing atrocities against the Albanian Kosovar may have been successful in this case, but the aversion to looking at the true cost of their humanitarian intervention would ensure this attitude was replicated in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, where the results would be much less favorable. To the critics of interventionist policy, Kosovo was the early warning for what was to come.

Skipping ahead nearly a decade, we are next going to examine one of the most recent and egregious examples of humanitarian aid being used to disastrous ends, Libya. Muammar Qaddafi rose to power in Libya in 1969 and ruled till his disposal and murder in October 2011. During his rule, Qaddafi transformed Libya from a nation in name alone that was little more than a loose collection of tribal factions, into a socialist Islamic republic through the use of military force and strongman authoritarianism. Several well-documented human rights abuses occurred under Qaddafi’s rule, most notably a prison massacre wherein guards killed a group of Islamist militants in a prison yard by binding their arms and throwing grenades at them. As with most authoritarian leaders, reports of dissenters being disappeared were also common right up to the time he was disposed. Despite these human rights abuses and a generally arrogant attitude toward the rest of the world, most notably America, Qaddafi managed to keep Libya a wealthy and powerful player on the international stage for over 4 decades. More recently, Libya had been a reliable ally for the West against Islamic terrorism post 9/11, as Qaddafi already had a historic hatred of Islamic radicalism and an obvious motivation to stabilize the region. Then, in 2011 amid the rise of the Arab Spring, protests over government corruption and unemployment were met with deadly force by the Libyan government, leading to an all-out civil war. In the early months it seemed Qaddafi’s superior military might would overcome the fledgling rebel forces despite support from neighboring states reinforcing their ranks. And then NATO got involved. In “Obama’s Libya Debacle”, Alan Kupperman reports that “By mid-March, government forces were poised to recapture the last rebel stronghold of Benghazi, thereby ending the one-month conflict at a total cost of just over 1,000 lives. Just then, however, Libyan expatriates in Switzerland affiliated with the rebels issued warnings of an impending “bloodbath” in Benghazi, which Western media duly reported but which in retrospect appear to have been propaganda.” (4). Post-mortems of the conflict would later show that many of these abuse charges were entirely fabricated or greatly exaggerated, as in “eastern Libya where the uprising began as a mixture of peaceful and violent protests, Human Rights Watch documented only 233 deaths in the first days of the fighting, not 10,000, as had been reported by the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya.” (Kupperman 3). In addition, “Human Rights Watch found that of the 949 people wounded there in the rebellion’s first seven weeks, only 30 (just over 3 percent) were women or children, which indicated that Qaddafi’s forces had narrowly targeted combatants.” (Kupperman 3). Nevertheless, NATO responded with force, ordering air strikes that killed hundreds of soldiers, rebels and civilians alike, including Qaddafi’s son and several of his grandchildren. In June the ICC issued a warrant for Qaddafi and his son Saif (regarded as the Liberal intellectual heir to Qaddafi’s throne) for war crimes. Amnesty International issued a report at the same time stating that they agreed that the Qaddafi regime had been in violation of several human rights abuses over the decades, but that the reports being acted on by NATO were likely to be fabrications created by rebel forces in search of Western aid. With the aid of NATO in the form of strategic airstrikes which crippled Qaddafi’s military and arms supplied mostly by the French government, the rebel forces soon took Tripoli. Qaddafi attempted to escape but his caravan was destroyed, and he was brutally tortured and murdered. Hillary Clinton would famously say of this encounter, “We came. We saw. He died.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Libyan civil war, it, like NATO’s efforts in Kosovo, was hailed as an overwhelming success. President Obama called it a model example of humanitarian aid and praised America’s ability to use its military for good around the world. An election was held in Libya almost immediately, something experts recommend not doing for several years following the disposal of a dictator. In Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya, Frederick Wehrey writes that “One authoritative survey of civil wars since 1945 showed that holding off on elections for five years reduced the chance of open conflict by a third.” (71). As it was, “It’s first elected prime minister, Mustafa Abu Shagour, lasted less than one month in office.” (Kupperman 2). Factionalism spread, and Western powers began to realize the difficulties of establishing a government in a populace that has only ever had a totalitarian king-like ruler and no infrastructure with which to build upon. “Islamists came to dominate the first postwar parliament, the General National Congress. Meanwhile, the new government failed to disarm dozens of militias that had arisen during NATO’s seven-month intervention, especially Islamist ones, leading to deadly turf battles between rival tribes and commanders.” (Kupperman 2). Political violence was widespread and “rebels perpetrated scores of reprisal killings, in addition to torturing, beating and arbitrarily detaining thousands of suspected Qaddafi supporters. The rebels also expelled 30,000 mostly black residents from the town from the town of Tawergha and burned or looted their homes and shops, on the grounds that some of them supposedly had been mercenaries. Six months after the war, Human Rights Watch declared that the abuses, ‘appear to be so widespread and systematic that they may amount to crimes against humanity.’” (Kupperman 3). Various militias started fighting for control of smaller towns and village, leading to chaos and “roughly 400,000 Libyans have (sic) fled their homes, a quarter of whom have left the country.” (Kupperman 3). NATO saw this instability as a threat to the legitimacy of their intervention and decided to support a group of Salafi Islamists known for their strict and brutal execution of Islamic law akin to al-Qaeda, thinking that at least their dominance in the region would bring some level of order and control. Unsurprisingly this did not work out the way they expected, and quickly the Salafi began committing atrocities of their own. This instability acted as a signal flare for ISIS to get involved and before long Libya became their biggest stronghold in the region. Tens of thousands have died since the end of the civil war and by every measurable standard the nation is worse off than it was pre-intervention. Currently, the best possible option for Libya seems to have come in the force of a retired General from the Qaddafi regime named Khalifa Haftar, who has “seized control of the air force to attack Islamist militias in Benghazi, later expanding his targets to include the Islamist-dominated legislature in Tripoli.” (Kupperman 2). Western leaders are reluctant to recognize Haftar’s government or aid him in any way as there have been reports of human rights abuses with his forces as well, including a particular brutality towards prisoners of war that elicits memories of Qaddafi himself. Still, it seems he may be successful in retaking control of the nation some 8 years after the initial civil war and that means the best Libya can hope for at this point is a return to military dictatorship.

America’s intervention in Libya was a complete and utter failure by humanitarian and nation building standards. It failed to stabilize the region, build democratic institutions or even save civilian lives. “The terrorism problem was exacerbated by the leakage of sensitive weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenal to radical Islamists across North Africa and the Middle East. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch estimates that ten times as many weapons went loose in Libya as in Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq.” including, “man-portable air defense systems, known as manpads, which in capable hands can be used to shoot down both civilian and military aircraft. Up to 15,000 such missiles were unaccounted for as of February 2012.” (Kupperman 6). Revenge killings and tribalism now rule the nation and Libya’s destabilization has also aided in the destabilization of Syria. “Since NATO’s intervention in 2011, however, Libya and its neighbor Mali have turned into terrorist havens.” (Kupperman 5). For the purposes of its moral crusade, Libya was a glaring example of bad foreign policy, with Obama himself calling it “the worst mistake of his presidency” (Wehrey 267). But what of the economic perspective? A small state like Libya could never directly harm the United States through use of conventional force, but before his disposal, Qaddafi announced he would be placing Libya’s oil reserves on the international market for Euro rather than greenbacks. Like Saddam Hussein before him, this set America’s sights on Qaddafi for daring to threaten the Petro-dollar. In Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, David Hendrickson wrote of Iraq and Libya, “These conflicts were about oil only in the indirect sense that oil production was a key element of national wealth and power; combating the power that oil afforded meant curtailing the export capacity of these states. The dominant U.S. concern was not gaining control over the oil but preventing actors considered malign, especially Iraq and Iran, from themselves making use of oil resources to build powerful states and nuclear weapons. That the motive was preclusive and not acquisitive does not mean that it was not aggressive.” (115). When placed through this lens, America’s intervention successfully served their interests, as well as those of the trans-nationalist capitalist class, and the humanitarian crisis they created is little more than unanticipated collateral damage. This leads us into another important topic in the discussing of the bad faith of American foreign policy, namely the illiberal nature of American liberalism.

In Republic in Peril, Hendrickson critiques the notion that America is global defender of Liberal democracy, claiming that the United States cannot act as an impartial defender of freedom and liberty while also acting on its own personal interests. By providing humanitarian aid as a smokescreen for securing national interests time and time again, America has shown itself to be untrustworthy in its claimed objectives. Liberalism is based off the perhaps foolish notion that under equal circumstances, all peoples would choose liberty and individualism over other ideological modes of living. It also presumes a base morality that all humans share and strives to enforce that shared morality among all members of the liberal world orders. This, however, creates a sense of international dissonance when America and its allies are held to a separate standard than the rest of the world. Well documented instances of torture, kidnapping, espionage, surveillance, extrajudicial murder, coups and an ever-expanding drone program are all examples of actions the United States have committed to the detriment of Liberalism. By violating the rules, America makes clear that the rules don’t matter and shows what’s important is power, as the Realists originally said. This leads to the disillusionment of Liberalism and directs people back towards systems of authoritarianism and fascism. The actions of America’s allies do this as well, such as illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia’s campaign against the Yemenis which further reinforce the notion that Liberalism is a scam and the powerful may do what they please. To add to this, the 45th president of the United States is a proudly illiberal man, both domestically and internationally. This means the head of the Liberal world order and self-appointed defender of democratic institutions around the world, openly disagrees with the notion of Liberalism and democracy. This has also led to the rise of neo-fascism and ensures we should all be infinitely skeptical of this administration’s motivations for war and humanitarian aid.

With all of this said, I feel it is crucially important now and moving forward for the peoples of Western nations to be aware of international politics and the foreign policy actions of their countries. Too long have we turned a blind eye to machinations of war and allowed leaders to sell us humanitarian crises that serve only the corporate interests of the trans-nationalist capitalist class. Military intervention must be seen for what it is, a tool of the military industrial complex to maintain profits and a system of control for international oil markets. Our hypocritical actions as global representatives of Liberalism push people towards authoritarian rule and modern-day fascism, provoking a collapse of the system said intervention was meant to safeguard. If we cannot right this wrong and change how we think about humanitarian aid and the use of force to achieve humanitarian goals we risk reverting to a world the world of the Realist, wherein cooperation is a sucker’s game and power is king.

Works Cited

Abadi, C. “The Small War That Wasn’t.” Foreign Policy, 2019, (231), 10-11. https:0-search-ebscohost-com.orca.douglascollege.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=134085401&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Weblink

Hendrickson, David C. Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Kuperman, Alan J. “Obama’s Libya Debacle.” Foreign Affairs, March 2015, Vol 94 Issue 2, p66-77. 12p.

Valentino, Benjamin A. “The True Cost of Humanitarian Intervention.” Foreign Affairs. Nov/Dec 2011, Vol. 90 Issue 6, p60-73.

Walt. S. M. “The Islamic Republic of Hysteria.” Foreign Policy, 2018,(227), 3-5. https://0-search-ebscohost-com.orca.douglascollege.ca/login.aspx?

Wehrey, Frederic. The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

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