Not How You Help Anyone

Sometime in 2004 or 2005 — probably mid-spring 2004, I do recall the season — I sat in a rather posh little cafe having lunch with Amatzia Baram discussing what was then the state of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. Baram was one of Israel’s leading experts on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a sometime advisor to Israeli Labor governments, and of course a decorated veteran of the IDF. He is also very charming and very funny. I had taken a class from at Georgetown during his sojourn in the United States (which included a stint at the spectacularly misnamed US Institute for Peace). He had taken something of an interest in my career, and was curious as to how I was doing and where I was going.

But we were also discussing the problem of Iraq. I had opposed the invasion, and he — while not opposing it — did not consider it particularly wise. He also said the occupation had turned out to be a disaster, though he believed on both points, the invasion and the occupation, that there really was no choice.

I disagreed. I said there was a choice.

Baram liked a challenge. In his class (which was people mostly by overeager undergrads begging and whining for an “A” because otherwise Goldman Sachs would not look kindly on their applications), we did an interesting little role play exercise — he was Saddan Hussein and students each took the role of April Glaspie, hoping somehow that we could say something to dissuade Saddam from his August 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. I still believe that telling Saddam, when he referred to Kuwait as a “Gerbil’s hole,” that even gerbil holes are someone’s home, was clever. But nothing could probably have kept the Iraqi army in Iraq that summer.

In any event, Baram asked me what the choice was. I said it was simple: grab a chunk of Iraq, the southern part of the country from Al-Nasiriyya east, including Basra, and hold the far western board with Jordan, and then mobilize and equip an Iraqi rebel army. (It would have been harder in the north, given the lack of Turkish cooperation, but it could have worked given the lack of control Iraq had over its own air space.) Provide them air support, let them organize the government, and then let them do the fighting. With support. As they gained parts of the country, Iraqis would have likely defected and rebelled, knowing they were backed by US air power, and that there was an Iraqi alternative to the Baa’ath government. It had the beauty, I argued, of keeping the United States out of direct control of any kind over Iraqi civil government, and it invested Iraqis in their own liberation.

I think it would have worked, allowing the Iraqis to rise up and seize their own dignity and liberate themselves. Baram dismissed it out of hand, saying it would not have. We’ll never know.

So we come, a few years later, to Libya. I admire and respect the rebels, and was very optimistic — too optimistic, it turns out — for their prospects during the first few days of the uprising against Qaddafiy. I had hoped the rebels would be able to prevail without Western military help. It became clear about 10 days ago that wasn’t possible. And once that became clear, I had hoped any Western military assistance could have cooperation given to a roughly equal partner.

And now that hope has been dashed too.

The statements that came out of Washington and Paris (and I’m guessing London too, though thank God Tony Blair has shuffled off to retirement and we’re not hearing his prissy and sanctimonious voice on this) in the last few days, since the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1973, has been maddening, reminiscent of Bosnia and Kosovo and some of the more thoughtful neoconservatives on Iraq. “We must protect civilians from the Qaddafiy government, which has lost all international legitimacy.”

I can see this nonsense coming out of Washington, but for Sarkozy to say it, when his own government recognized the rebels a week ago as the legitimate government of Libya, boggles my mind. It’s as if that rebel government, for the purposes of war-making, no longer exists.

This is the West’s moralizing at its worst. We protect the innocent from the evil. We are the powerful good who always ride to the rescue. Our bombs always fall with the noblest of intentions, and that makes those killed by them less dead. The Libyans have become objects — as people always seem to — in our self-obsessed moral drama. Always helping innocent victims against evil. Always doing good in a world full of bad.

Our idea of helping people is to do for them, not to do with them. This permeates the entire ethic of help grown in the West, its secular and religious notions.

Instead, the Libyans can and should have been full partners in a fight for dignity and freedom. Recognize their government and they become full participating subjects, partners, and not merely objects in a liberation and protection fantasy that we have created, in which we are the only real moral actors and everyone else is simply a spectator or an object, who exist only to receive the order we do. I would have thought someone in the Quai d’Orsay would have gotten that (Washington is incapable of understanding that non-Americans and non-Israelis have any sense of dignity, certainly any dignity worth fighting and dying for), but clearly not. So, the cavalry flies off across the Mediterranean. To save the innocent people of Libya!

(They aren’t so innocent. Many senior figures from the Qaddafiy regime now inhabit the rebel government. You do not get to be Qaddafiy’s interior minister by holding ice cream socials. You do not rebel against a government like Qaddafiy’s merely by marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Innocence should not be a requirement for help, but it seems morally to be.)

I fully expect the Libyan rebels and the exiles supporting them to wholeheartedly accept the assistance. It saves their rebellion, and any hopes they have for an immediate future of a Libya they govern. But the stakes have changed. Because they no longer really are partners in their struggle. The language used by Western leaders clearly states that. Had Obama or Sarkozy talked about aiding the Libyan rebels, or had Washington recognized their government (which it should), that would be one thing. But the talk is of protecting civilians. The same kind of nonsense talk the prolonged the Bosnian War, and deprived the Bosnians the right to fight and die like dignified human beings.

Western leaders are hypocrites no matter what they say or do. All people are. But the powerful are especially vulnerable to such charges, usually because they are so self-righteous about the power they use and when and why they use it. If “protecting civilians” oppressed by their own governments (or not, from the standpoint of Paris) is the gold standard for the use of virtuous power, then where do you stop? Who will protect the civilians of Bahrain? Of Yemen? Of Palestine? Or of those Libyans who die from Western bombs or rebel guns? Oh right. Nobody.

This isn’t to say the rebellion isn’t worth supporting. Qaddafiy and his government are worth getting rid of. The Libyans themselves tried to, and bless them, it wasn’t quite enough. Absent the rebellion, the West would be right not to topple even an odious regime like Libya’s. But I had hoped this time might be different. That we could treat the Libyans like equal women and men in a fight for liberty and dignity. The chance was there.

But clearly, we’re not capable of taking it.

One thought on “Not How You Help Anyone

  1. You are talking like a loon- and how would we support a uprising, and it is spelt Gaddafi, everywhere I have looked.

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