Tale of two interventions

By Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer

What makes the Iraq War completely condemnable and today’s Allied strikes at Libya perfectly laudable?

First is that the Iraq War had no UN sanction while today’s strikes do.

Had another country done what the US did in 2003, that country would have been called a rogue state and faced reprisals. The UN saw no compelling reason to take military action against Iraq. It never bought the US line that Saddam Hussein was armed with weapons of mass destruction and were ready to use them against the US. All its experts were saying Saddam’s force was spent, all he had were weapons of mass delusion.

The US went on to invade Iraq anyway, but not before disparaging the one body that had been the repository of post-war world opinion, depicting it as having become irrelevant in today’s world. In lieu of the UN, all the US had was the Coalition of the Conscripted, countries like the Philippines headed by someone who counted on the US to be quiet while she oppressed her people and/or while she plotted to steal the vote the following year.

Today’s Allied strikes have UN sanction and the backing of world opinion. It wasn’t just the Libyan rebels who celebrated after the UN’s declaration of a no-fly zone over Libya, firing rockets in the air and chanting “God is the greatest.” The world did. Except for China and a few countries which expressed reservations about the UN resolution. China opposes military action in international relations, a generally good position to maintain except in cases that involve genocide or mass murder, cases like Bosnia, Rwanda, and increasingly, yes, Libya.

Second is that the Iraq War was first and last a response to the needs of the American government while the air strikes are first and last a response to the needs of the Libyan people.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, as the Americans who opposed the war expected, though they were the minority drowned out by a general paranoia and jingoism fueled by Congress and the media which went along with the war, the official line promptly went on another track. That was that the invasion of Iraq was a war of liberation to free the Iraqi people from the clutches of Saddam. Which was all very fine, except for several things. One was that the world did not lack for SOBs except that the others were America’s SOBs, and in any case had no vast supplies of oil. Two was that there was no home-grown revolt against Saddam, other than all sorts of religious and tribal schisms. Three was that the Iraqi people themselves, including women and children, took the brunt of liberation from America’s smart bombs, sending their keening and lamentations to heaven.

The Libyan civil war began as an uprising by the Libyan people following similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that had ousted long-time rulers, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Remarkably, all three took place on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the EDSA revolution, giving us to see with new eyes something important we have bequeathed to the world. The first two took the same route as EDSA (some of the parallels, including the rulers vowing to fight till death but slinking away in the night, are uncanny), the last has not. Determined to fight on despite his alienation from his own people and those of the world, Gadhafi has turned the uprising into a civil war, threatening wholesale slaughter upon his enemies.

International law, which the UN exists to uphold, is clear on the point: You do not interfere in the affairs of another country in the name of any good, implied or stated. The only time you may do so is on humanitarian grounds, to prevent an imminent bloodbath. The point, and a most insightful one, is that the intervention is bound to produce consequences that are worse than the bad it means to correct. Even if the American invasion of Iraq represented a patent good—and the cynicism of its motives, the deviousness with which its government sold it to the public, and the arrogance with which it carried it out preclude that idea—it would have remained unjustifiable.

Not so the strikes on Libya.

Third is that the Iraq War paid service to a lie, the strikes on Libya pay service to the truth.

At the very least, the first was quite literally premised on the lie that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the US. Saddam had no reason to threaten the US and had nothing to threaten the US with. He had no visible connection to al-Qaida, which the US believed to have mounted 9/11. As to his being barbaric, capable of wholesale carnage via poison gas, the US, along with France, Britain, and other Arab countries did not particularly mind when he was doing that to the Iranians, even calling him at the time “an agent of the civilized world.”

There is little doubt that Gadhafi would first obliterate his people before he gives in to them. He is the nightmare that would have happened to us if Marcos had dug in.

At the very most, the first is premised on the bigger lie, shown up by history: that liberation can come from outside, that freedom can be given as a gift.

At the end of the day, when Gadhafi is gone (and he will be gone whether it takes a month, a year, or several years), he cannot stop the march of history which has often taken the form of the people expressing their wrath, it will be because of the people and not their benefactors. It will be because the people have suffered, because the people have struggled, because the people have spoken. Freedom is never given, it is fought for. Liberty is never granted, it is earned. With blood and tears. The world will have helped to lessen the blood and stemmed the tears, but in the end the victory, and liberation, will have been won by the Libyan people themselves.

There’s no grander truth than that.


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