Tuesday, February 09, 2016

It's Not a War, Silly; It's Just an Intervention!

Should the west launch yet another war in Libya? You might think not, given how calamitous the last one turned out to be—given, in fact, that the results of the last war in Libya have become the basis for the new one!—but fear not, you can always count on The Economist to assure you of why we need yet another war. You see, what it all really comes down to is that, “In a situation where there are no good options, doing nothing may be the worst.”

This is the kind of thing I’m starting to think of as Peak Economist—when the magazine can’t come up with an argument even marginally new, insightful, or useful about one of the wars it’s constantly calling for, and so defaults to the kind of sober- and serious-sounding but substantively vapid bromides that have become the trademark of its warmongering.

So let’s pause for just a moment—longer, apparently, than the Economist allotted itself before publishing that marvelous bit of self-important onanism—to consider a bit of what’s so embarrassingly stupid about it.

First, why should “doing nothing” be inherently suspect—especially when the only alternatives The Economist seems able to imagine all involve war? Now, in fairness to The Economist, war is only called war with regard to the “Libyan Civil War.” Western bombings and invasions are instead understood to be mere “intervention.” Seriously—“war” is used three times in the article, and only about the Libyan civil war. Intervention is used four times, and only about a western attack. In fact, I just decided on the spot to make “intervention” one of my favorite war-mongering euphemisms ever, reserved only for the noble actions of the beneficent west and denied to our adversaries such as the Iranians, who can only “meddle” in countries adjacent to them after the west has “intervened” there.

(For some of the best war euphemisms ever, including wars that aren’t wars but are instead merely instances of “marching” and “pressing forward” and “continuing,” see former CIA clandestine service chief Jack Devine and former “dean of the Washington Press corps” David Broder in The Definition of Insanity.)

Sorry, I digress…we were talking about why “doing nothing” should be inherently suspect when all The Economist’s alternatives are so demonstrably awful. A question: is The Economist arguing that it would have been worse to have done nothing in Iraq rather than invading and occupying the country, killing well over 100,000 civilians and displacing another four million in the process?

(Think about those numbers for a moment. Even accounting for all our imperialistic privileges and American Exceptionalism and all that, you could argue that’s kind of a lot of human beings to slaughter and turn into stateless refugees, and that it might possibly have been better to “do nothing” instead.)

Or would “doing nothing” have been worse in Libya in 2011, when our war (sorry, “intervention”) destroyed the country and turned it into a breeding ground for ISIS? After all, if we’d “done nothing” last time, we probably wouldn’t need another war this time. Though in fairness to The Economist, which does seem excessively fond of war and frightened of what might happen if we were ever to Do Nothing instead, that last point might not be terribly persuasive.

We have a Hippocratic Oath in medicine. Why would the concept be applicable to medical interventions, but not to military ones?

I know, I know…they never really come out and definitively say “doing nothing” would be the worst option. Instead, it’s “doing nothing may be the worst option.” Sure, it might be! But it might be the best option, too. Or something in the middle. In the vacuum that passes for The Economist’s reasoning, who can really say? But for God’s sake, if you really don’t know, if something “may” be worse, or better, or whatever, what kind of sick mind would want war to be the default option?

Of course, this whole “war or nothing” framework is itself bullshit, driven either by ignorance or propaganda. Now, I don’t think the people who write these articles at The Economist are so dim-witted that they actually can’t imagine a way of conducting foreign policy other than War/Do Nothing. So either they’re so morbidly attracted to war that their desire for more of it is blunting their imagination and occluding their reason, or they know full well that a country as disproportionately powerful and influential as America has countless tools at its disposal—War and Nothing being only two of them—and are deliberately misleading their readers in the hope they’ll be able to gin up another of the wars they seem to crave.

Watch out, by the way, anytime someone tries to limit the discussion to only two crappy alternatives while positioning theirs as the marginally less worse one. I come across this with regard to torture fairly regularly—“Well, if we can’t torture them, what are we supposed to do, offer them tea and crumpets?”— because, right, no one has yet figured out a way to interrogate a criminal suspect or captured enemy that doesn’t involve either waterboarding, on the one hand, or finger sandwiches, on the other. Whether done cynically or clinically, the technique is just a way to pull you into the confines of the box that limits the other person’s thinking, and force a result that logic and reason would otherwise reject.

The final paragraph is like a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the article itself. It quotes a couple of think tank people to create the appearance of balance and a modicum of thoughtfulness, and these people offer the kind of stunningly fresh insights that only a seasoned think tank denizen could come up with, such as that a western invasion of Libya might be “unwise and risky” (Really? Another western invasion of a Muslim country might entail some risks? Are you sure?), and even that the west might “need to proceed carefully” (Solid advice—thank you!). These “balanced” asides are served up not to persuade anyone that another war in Libya might not be such a great idea, but rather to steer readers to the gloriously sane, serious, sober, centrist option The Economist is hankering to make real—air strikes in support of small commando units.

Those are your only options, people: a full-scale invasion and occupation; the dreaded “do nothing” option; or some nice, sanitary air strikes and a handful of semi-secret troops. Which is it going to be—one of the two really shitty options, or the one that sounds a little less shitty by comparison?

If this all feels as manipulative as a game of Three-card Monte, it’s because it is. Pundits who want wars can’t get them unless they convince the public to go along for the ride. And if that involves subterfuge, well, it’s all for the greater good, right?

If The Economist gets its way and the west does another “intervention” in Libya, and the latest “intervention” produces results as horrifically counterproductive as the last one, and ISIS or an ISIS-successor bogeyman then pops up in Algeria or Egypt or wherever, there’s one thing I’m sure we can count on. The Economist will tell us yet again that “doing nothing” will be—sorry, “may” be—worse than yet another of their cherished “interventions.”


Unknown said...

Excellent analysis, Barry. But there is one advantage -- at least to the US -- in "interventions" that destabilise Middle Eastern countries and send refugees fleeing. Where do the refugees go? I don't see many jumping into boats and crossing the Atlantic, but they do jump into boats and cross the Mediterranean, or go overland into Europe. The massive influx is taxing European countries, and even threatening the stability of the EU. (Britain is looking to have a referendum on staying in the EU, in part because the public are riled about the influx of refugees from European countries.)

A weaker Europe can only be good for US interests. Perhaps NATO "interventionists" could cut out the middle-man and simply bomb some of their own infrastructure.

Unknown said...

Thank you Barry for the clear words. I totally understand your frustration on this matter and the total ignorance by the people drives me insane. War appears to be totally acceptable and a normal situation, not the ultima ratio that it should be. "Support the Troops" is one of the most said and printed slogans in today's america, because it is common sense that war is a terrible thing. For EVERYONE directly or indirectly involved. But the same people always want to send the armed forces somewhere abroad to bomb the hell out of some villages in the desert and fight against guerilla troops. It must be some kind of schizophrenia of the public to (rightly) pity their soldiers for traumas and other war-related illnesses and at the same time to make them fight wars they cannot win. It would be ridiculous, if it wasn't so sad. That way it is just grotesque.
And I think what you pointed put is the reason for this: Apparently there are only 2 ways of dealing with a problem. Kill it or leave it. There seems to be no middle way. And leave it is no option for a country that spends more than 600 billion dollars on their military every year. It's like an expensive toy that must be used, because otherwise the investment would have been pointless. Unfortunately many people tend to forget that war is not a game and makes everyone a loser, even the so called "victors".

Unknown said...

Barry thanks for the rave fantastic, war is the rant, so maybe resources should be allocated for total humanity based on priority like oh food, housing, education, space. I enjoyed the read if the History was not so sad. Maybe blogging will bring a new day, turn around, bright eyes.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

I thought the Iraq and libiya fiascos were because both countries publicly stated they would be selling their oil NOT in dollars, thereby collapsing us fiat currency