An Ignorant Perspective on Libya

Tax time prompts many of us to ponder what our tax dollars pay for. This year I thought, just a bit, about the most recent significant (if still relatively small) addition to the U.S. budget. I came to the conclusion that--for various reasons--I know next to nothing about what is happening or is likely to happen. Men and women in power know much more about the situation than I do, and have decided that it is prudent to intervene militarily. I wish I knew why. I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to succeed at regime change. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to bring democracy. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to save more lives than it costs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign leaders to know what’s best for Libyans. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we’re not training and supporting thugs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we won’t inspire future outrage and violence. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, the long history of disastrous foreign military intervention will find an exception. But I don’t.

I wish I knew why, this time, procedural safeguards on grave decisions are not important. But I dont.

F.A. Hayek once argued, albeit in a different context, that such astounding ignorance as mine calls for staunch adherence to principles rather than the expedient pursuit of concrete objectives. I just don’t know enough to judge this or any prospective case for military intervention by its own merits. Lacking the detailed knowledge necessary to distinguish this from other cases of intervention, I am left leaning on what I know about the success and consequences of military intervention generally. But I can’t know beforehand whether Libya will be an exception.

So I’m stuck with my principles, like  Jeffersons recommendation of “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” along with some more basic rules. They don’t work every time. But that’s not the point. When they’re held firmly--even dogmatically--as principles, they do better than someone as dumb as me could manage.

Maybe that makes me a lunatic. Maybe those in power do know the exceptional merits of this case. Maybe they know why dropping bombs and shooting missiles makes sense this time. But I don’t.

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

- F. A. Hayek

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Libya: Never say never again

News update Saturday 9 am: Western allies dither while Qaddafi invades last rebel stronghold. Was the agreement on the no-fly zone so easy because it would be too late and so wouldn't actually happen? BREAKING NEWS 2:30pm: Obama announces US will help enforce UN resolution on no-fly zone on Qaddafi: not alone but as part of European and Arab coalition, and with limited objective of protecting civilians.

Readers of this blog know that this author is NOT a big fan of external military intervention as an instrument of a ludicrously broadened concept of "development" that includes resolving civil wars. However, any social scientist can only argue on the basis of generalizations over a large number of cases, and generalizations have exceptions. Never say never. There COULD be that golden moment when an outside military force does something good (like the famous example of the British commandos in Sierra Leone).

Of course, we also have to take into account that unaccountable outside powers will invoke the (usually low) probability of a good outcome as justification for even more (usually bad) interventions (often motivated by their own interests). Let's not pretend that the accountability problem is anywhere near a solution.

Still, for the sake of the people of Libya, all of us can only hope this will be one of those golden moments.

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Toppling Qaddafi

Who was that madman ranting about his hallucinations on Libyan TV, desperately in need of an anger management intervention? Oops, that's the ruler of the country. He has gotten even more ridiculously scary since our last post.

A small group of young people who have taken drugs have attacked police station like mice ... However there is a small group of sick people that has infiltrated in cities that are circulating drugs and money.

This bunch of greasy rats and cats.

Libya wants glory, Libya wants to be at the pinnacle, at the pinnacle of the world...I am a fighter, a revolutionary from tents ... I will die as a martyr at the my last drop of blood. ...You men and women who love Gaddafi ... get out of your homes and fill the streets. Leave your homes and attack them in their lairs. They are taking your children and getting them drunk and sending them to death. For what? To destroy Libya, burn Libya. .. Forward, forward, forward!

Sympathies to the courageous Libyans fighting for their freedom against this crazed tyrant.

What can the rest of the world do? The usual "don't just stand there, do something" could result in counter-productive actions. Any military intervention would play into Qaddafi's hand, especially since there really is nobody that can be trusted to do a "neutral humanitarian" intervention.

Trade embargo not a good idea -- why punish the Libyan people? Libya's opening to tourism and trade with the West in the last few years has arguably made this current revolt more possible, not less possible.

(True confessions: I went to Libya myself for a trek in the Sahara over Christmas holiday. And I have to also confess that, even being extremely skeptical of "benevolent autocrats," I too was deceived that "Qaddafi had changed.")

Too many NOs for you? Well here's some Constructive NOs: NO to any aid to Libya, NO to any caving in to Libyan government contract blackmail, NO to arms sales, NO to "colonial reparations." NO to "slavish" courting of Qaddafi (Feel free to apply any of all of that to you, Prime Minister Berlusconi).

YES to freezing foreign assets of the Qaddafi family, which the FT reports to be substantial (OK, Swiss?)

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Dictators v. Democracy: our Autocrat Unintentional Self-Parody Index (AUSPI)

Update 2pm Saturday Feb 19: more reports of protests today in Benghazi, and more killings by Qaddafi forces. Qaddafi strategy of cutting Libya off from intl media and Net seems to be working, as these heroic protesters are not getting much world attention. UPDATE 4pm: Shaky reports of more protests and massacres out of Libya. This eloquent statement in the Guardian by a noted Libyan author:

I appeal to Colonel Gaddafi and his security forces: for the sake of the mothers, for the sake of those who died, for the sake of Libya, please don't shoot and torture your people.

Hisham Matar

As reported in the Guardian, this video posted on Youtube shows protesters in Tobruk knocking over a statue of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's Green Book:

We took a first step towards this rigorous index in an earlier post.  Reacting to news that even Libya is having protest demonstrations, we think that the outlook for democracy in Libya could be affected by the comically extreme AUSPI shown below.

As the latest tragic news comes in of protester deaths, the people of Libya are not laughing...

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