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“The UN Shifts Priority from Peace to People”

There’s an excellent opinion piece by Thomas Darnstädt in De Spiegel which neatly summarises both the importance and the danger of intervening in Libya:

The intervention of some European countries and the United States in Libya’s conflict marks a turning point in international relations: The world community has shown that it values human rights over peace and that the era of the unaccountable sovereign state is over. Still, the UN’s move could have unpredictable consequences.

That is a useful description of the problem: human rights and peace are unfortunately in conflict, and sometimes a choice has to be made. This is perhaps the most difficult choice of all for a liberal society.

A refusal to engage with the issue leaves you as a moralising enabler of death and torture; eagerness leads to being a warmongering cause of death and torture.

For me, the moral question is straightforward – liberal nations should intervene to prevent large scale massacres. Peace simply does not exist in much of the world; it is unwise to make a fetish of it. “Should we?” is not the same as “can we?”, however, which is where all the problems come in.

The biggest problem here may be the Iraq war. Bush and Blair conspired to almost completely ignore the “can we?” question, outright mislead the public on the “should we?” one, and so provide any number of arguments to people who would prefer to just sit back and hope it all turns out nice.

A secondary problem for liberals is getting confused between looking to the future and dwelling on our imperialist past. It’s been sad to see, when the question of “Should we let Qaddafi slaughter the rebels?” has arisen, so many who insist on answering it in the context of Britain’s past rather than Libya’s future.

Another problem is at an individual level. I have not joined the army or otherwise put my life at risk; what right have I to ask it of anybody else?

For my part, I believe that the potential for civil war is no worse than continuing violent suppression. If Libya goes down the route of civil war or fragmentation, let it be their choice rather than an imposed one. Therefore the “can we?” question is not the utopian one of “can we prevent a messy outcome?” but of “can we prevent a dictator slaughtering his people?”, and the answer is Yes.

Libya’s future was and is uncertain no matter which decision we made, and Britain’s past actions don’t change that fact. Given the opportunity to prevent large scale killings, the Iraq war must be seen in terms of practical lessons learnt, galling as that may be for people trying to catch Blair. UN approval, international cooperation, Arab support – we are applying the lessons of the past as best we can.

Finally, on an individual level, I suspect this comes down to your approach to nationalism. The solider who has volunteered to fight – does s/he does so purely to defend the nation’s borders, or also our ideals? Does defence extend into our role on the world stage? Does what we fight for now impact our long term prosperity as a nation?

I tend to the more expansive notions. My admiration for the military stems largely from their willingness to put duty before themselves. Humanity is only slowly moving away from our track record of tribal warfare. It is a remarkable thing that our forces are willing to do so, right now, and for a foreign people they might never actually meet.

It could go either way, says Mr. Darnstädt. Let’s hope that seeking to do the right thing in the right manner delivers the better outcome.