Note: I say “we” a lot in these kinds of posts, for convenience more than anything. It should be taken to mean “the West”, as in the general “Western World” of which Ireland is a small, but legitimate, part.
A Libyan police chief, Colonel Mostafa Oukeila was shot dead in Benghazi on Friday. A militia group, one of many which fought in the civil war but has refused to follow the wishes or orders of the new government, and continues to act as its own independent military force, drove up in a car and gunned him down. This occurred as the area was engulfed in clashes between rival militia groups, with the local “authorities” unable to do anything to stop it. This event received an AP write-up, copied and pasted by a handful of other news agencies, of around 125 words.
The Rebel Alliance didn’t win the Galactic Civil War at the Battle of Endor.
Libya did not become a peaceful democracy when Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed.
Which leads us to what I like to call, the “Endor Problem”.
In the event of a “limited intervention” in a civil war involving rebels fighting a central dictator figure, the “Endor Problem” comes into being when a media/commentator drive for intervention, that involves significant coverage and efforts to alter public opinions on the issue to favour intervention, ends when the dictator is neutralised, with a fraction of the previous coverage devoted to anything that occurs afterward.
I have coined the term from the climactic battle of the original Star Wars trilogy, the sort of mass medium that has influenced such thinking, where media/commentator sources and large swaths of the public only view an issue in terms of black and white – plucky underdog rebels fighting an overwhelming and cruel evil empire – that is resolved in the simplest way possible, with the rebels winning a single resounding victory over the Empire. Simple, clean, easy. What is not seen by the audience, largely by their own choice, is the messy, bloody aftermath, such as that in the Star Wars “expanded universe” where it takes the rebels decades to bring the remaining elements of the Empire to heel.
Of course, this is just a simple analogy, one designed to be applied to Libya and the situation there. It is more of a commentary on the fickle nature of media and public attention, which seems like it couldn’t care less about the continuing instability in post-Gaddafi Libya, which features armed militia groups operating outside government control, assassinations of key figures, widespread racism, a tanking economy, corruption and illegality surrounding the countries oil industry and large parts of its territory edging towards violent rebellion against the central authority.
None of this is ever front page news anymore. Only when an American embassy and ambassador was attacked did that happen post-Gaddafi, and even all of the attention there seemed more to do with the ongoing American election campaign than anything else.
There is no media conspiracy either mind. We have the press that we deserve, the one we support and nourish, that reports on the things that the vast majority of us want to read, whether it is a true reflection on the state of affairs in the Middle-East or not.
Libya is “done” according to the popular consciousness here in the west, the US, NATO and the EU. No Phase IV, no boots on the ground, no hands on help with reconstruction. We got the warm fuzzy feelings of seeing the cuddly Ewoks and brave rebels take out Emperor Palpatine with our X-Wings, and then the metaphorical credits rolled.
And it looks like the same thing might be soon to happen in Syria. A new band of plucky rebels, a new evil Emperor to vanquish, a new media drive based around emotional invocations and a desperate plea that the world simply has to “do something”. The US Navy appears to be getting ready to deliver cruise missile strikes to the area, perhaps to target chemical weapon sites, or to take the lead in a larger multi-national effort.
I am loath to rehash the same arguments that I made for the case of non-intervention in Libya, but here we are. Ten points, which I mentioned on Twitter the other night:
1. It’s none of the West’s business.
What are the West’s interests in Syria? Who are they best served by? How does the outcome of this civil war effect the West’s position in the area? Think of the Ellis Doctrine here.
The truth is that what is going on in Syria should be none of our concern. Mass media and globalisation has made it so, but only in a false, incoherent way, as Western interests and goals in the region become wrapped around pictures of atrocity committed in a country that a surprising amount of people wouldn’t be able to point to on a map, or name its dominant Islamic faith.
2. R2P is not applied evenly across the board, so why is Syria special?
As I outlined here during the Libya affair, there are dozens of places around the world where these is civil war, human rights abuses and just general suffering as a result of conflict. Why do none of them get the same amount of attention when it comes to the famed “Responsibility to protect”? Why don’t we try and stop Turkey from bombing Kurdistan? Or the dictatorship in Belarus, that borders the EU? Or the conscription of child soldiers in God knows how many parts of Africa?
The media campaign for Syria, as it was for Libya, is the answer, as we are duped into believing in an “easy win” scenario. Never underestimate the desire for fuzzy feelings, as long as they come easy.
3. Who says the FSA will be better leaders of Syria? Or friendlier to the west?
The best way to illustrate this point, is to ask the reader, yes you, to name the leader of the “Free Syrian Army”, right now. Or do you have to check Wikipedia?
Now, there will be a handful who can, but most of you? You can’t. We, as a general culture, have a shocking lack of knowledge about the way things work in the Middle-East, even when it comes to something as basic as political, or prospective political leaders.
We don’t know enough about the FSA to jump into bed with them to the extent that we hand them the keys to power in Damascus. Terrorist elements? Anti-Israeli elements? Plans for revenge after gaining power? Beliefs about rights for women? Forms of democracy? Attitude towards the United States?
4. The cost, in money and potentially in some lives.
The financial cost of the Libyan intervention was gigantic, and that link is just for the US. Missiles aren’t cheap, and neither are ships, planes or bases. The EU’s finances aren’t looking too healthy right now, and I for one would not support diverting funds to up its military capability, or begging the US to continue to subsidise it on the European mainland.
As for lives, well, Libya was bloodless for the western intervention I suppose. But Syria has a slightly better army than Gaddafi had. Don’t discount the possibility of casualties. How many is the west willing to tolerate for a “free” Syria? As many as died in Mogadishu, before the US cut and run from Somalia?
5. Inevitable civilian casualties of bombing campaign.
If there is a No Fly or any kind of bombing campaign, you’re, inevitably, going to hit civilians in some capacity. I’m always surprised by the amount of pro-interventionists who either fail or refuse to consider this, or who simply dismiss it as acceptable in the pursuit of a greater good – moral compasses go out of control fast in these situations.
6. Long-term likelihood of Syrian slide into further anarchy, ala Libya.
Simple as. Libya is a mess right now, in so many respects, and Syria will likely go the same way with another Libya-style intervention, where the West does just enough to insure a rebel victory, but next to nothing practical once that is achieved.
7. Total lack of care for long-term Syrian development. Pottery Barn rule now a dirty concept.
“You broke it, you bought it” is a concept in international relations and interventions that I believe strongly. I believe in the responsibility of nations and entities like the UN to finish what they started, which is why all considerations should be contemplated before anything is started. But over a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan has rendered the Pottery Barn rule something not to be thought of. No nation-building, no boots on the ground. Bomb, rebel victory, see you later. That’s not good enough in my eyes. If you want to do it, do it right. Plan, commit, see it through.
8. I’m worried about Irish peacekeepers in the Golan.
The Irish Defence Forces has recently committed to expanding its presence with the UNDOF mission in the Golan Heights. Any escalation in Syria could conceivably lead to the UN troops there coming under greater threat, and I don’t think the mandate involves dealing with the aftermath of American cruise missile strikes. A personal concern I suppose, but I don’t want Irish soldiers potentially having a civil war situation thrust upon them in a very volatile region.
9. Further inflaming of Assad backed paramilitary and terrorist groups in region against West for recruitment, funding etc.
Assad has plenty of friends in the region, of various different types. And there are plenty of groups who will use the dropping of missiles by America and the West as a propaganda tool to recruit new fighters and garner more funds for their anti-American and anti-Western interests. Think about where the guns we send to arm the FSA today might end up tomorrow, and in whose hands, and who they will be firing at. Who armed the Taliban?
10. That nice fuzzy feeling isn’t good enough as a reason for war.
We all know it feels good, feels right, to overthrow dictators and bring in democracy. We all remember the fuzzy feeling, like when Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down.
And we should all remember the fiasco that occurred afterward.
Wars are a serious, complicated business, affecting the most valuable parts of humanity: our lives. The fuzzy feeling is great, but I prefer ice cold logic when it comes to military commitment.
And bonus point:
11. Chemical weapons are over-rated, both as an offensive tool and a rationale for war.
I mean, a weapon dependent on wind? The effectiveness of chemical weapons in a military sense is very much in dispute. Furthermore, Assad has been killing his civilians (and the rebels have been doing the same, to an extent) for close to three years now, but he uses some chemical shells and suddenly it’s unacceptable? Why? If he’d killed those kids with bullets, would the West have cared as much? Is it the children we’re going to war over, or a weapon whose practical use is fairly limited compared to a simple artillery barrage?
So, what am I saying? That it’s better for Assad to stay in power?
Maybe. And remember #3 above. We always have to ask ourselves: Will the “new boss”, the one the West is going to be responsible for helping along, going to be any better? Both for our interests and for the Syrian people? The West has backed enough dictators to no longer be able to voice qualms with a straight face.
Are the people of Libya better off right now than they were a few years ago? Are you sure?
Keep the Endor problem in mind. Civil wars, Galactic or real, are messy, messy things, with no easy solutions. Intervention has to be weighed carefully, the costs, the positives, the potential negatives in the short and long term.
I know those pictures of dead children are heartbreaking. But that is a just an appeal to illogical emotion, to disregard the potential chaos that follows intervention, to be happy with “limited” strikes that can easily cause more problems than they solve.
Remember Endor. Remember than the real world doesn’t work that way. And perhaps also remember Colonel Mostafa Oukeila, who suffers the ignominy of a relegated news story of his murder because Libya isn’t something we want to hear about anymore.