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War Is Not the Answer to Libyan Protests

March 3, 2011

The non-violent protests that  ousted authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired people across the world demand political change. As readers of this blog will note, many people  in the FCNL community were particular delighted by the reaffirmation of the power of nonviolence.

Yet the power of nonviolence seems lost to some policymakers here in Washington. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that as soon as the protests in Libya turned violent there were calls for military intervention. What amazed me is that even before some of the groups (and certainly not all) in Libya began calling for international military intervention, some individuals in Congress, in the administration, and in the policy making community began arguing for a no-fly zone over Libya.  Has the United States really learned that little?

Ah, say some pundits, a no-fly zone is not intervention, it’s an international humanitarian operation. Yet speaking at a Congressional hearing yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seemed to dispensed with that argument: “Let’s just call a spade a spade,” said Gates. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.”

Yet the United States is at least threatening just that. The Navy has publicly announced that several ships are steaming to the area around Libya and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken supportively of the idea of a no-fly zone. Responding to the apparent contradiction between Gates and Clinton, White House spokesman Jay Carney told the Wall Street Journal “The fact that the no-fly zone idea is complex does not mean it’s not on the table.”

In the twisted logic of Washington, some policymakers and analysts have suggested to me that the “threat” of military force is a good way to avoid military force. Hmm. I would be very cautious.

The United States has some very well-informed State and Pentagon officials who are following events in North Africa very closely. Yet part of the failing of U.S. policy in North Africa is that as soon as a situation like Libya develops, the senior people making policy know very little about the region and they tend to fall back on the tools that they know — the military tools.  (My colleague Bridget has written extensively about the tools for preventing violent conflict).

To my mind, the first thing the United States needs to do is stop playing a negative role in the region. The United States backed authoritarian governments in Egypt and Tunisia for decades because stability trumped democracy and freedom at every turn. That backing created a perfect breeding ground for violent, extremist groups. I draw some hope from the reality that, despite decades of U.S. support for repressive regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, there are signs that many of the protesters that are now calling for new openings are not violently anti-U.S. I hope that I could be that open if I were in their position.

Ironically again, it seems the U.S. military is the one service that is seeing the limits of war in the region. Last week, speaking at West Point, Secretary of Defense Gates said

“Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or onto the Middle East should have his head examined.”

Now I would guess Secretary Gates and I don’t agree on the power of nonviolence. Yet the military has learned the hard way in Afghanistan and Iraq that military intervention is not a cure-all to these problems. As Bridget has pointed out, Gates himself is an advocate of diplomacy, development, and international cooperation.
A United States war on Libya is not going to bring about a democratic revolution in that country. The good news is that Secretary Gates and some in Congress have also expressed caution about the rush to intervene.  War Is Not the Answer to the Libyan Protests.


PS: For those of you looking for more, Bill Minter has put up some good contextual analysis of the undemocratic and repressive nature of the Libyan regime. One problem in our society is we continue to look for simple solutions to complex problems.

  1. Judith Lauer permalink
    March 3, 2011 6:01 pm

    I agree whole heartedly with your article. Especially your comment, “Has the United States really learned that little.”


  2. March 3, 2011 10:11 pm

    that would be the WORST mistake the government /congress/president could ever make!!! we don’t need another war,it’s not even necessary,just like it was never necessary to go to war with Iraq. People need take a stand against any future war between the us and whoever…the idea of another one is the “most dangerous” idea to date! don’t even start,don’t even go that route!!! problems of the world CAN be resolved WITHOUT conflict and i think the government/congress/president ought to consider that option.Peace CAN be achieved by resolving conflicts by using the right dialogue.

  3. Mary Liz Burris permalink
    March 3, 2011 11:29 pm

    Jim – I agree with your blog. I am so frightened and dismayed that people in authority are suggesting we get involved in another war! I hope Secretary Gates is able to stand his ground and prevent this happening. We are in two too many wars already.

  4. Rich Andrews permalink
    March 4, 2011 11:56 am

    Amen Jim. Keep up the thoughtful speaking truth to power. Make it often and public, in the Congress and White House offices, in the hallways, in the dining rooms, on the subway, on the sidewalks, everywhere. We all need to speak the truths of peace, harmony, equality, sometimes even very loudly and with passion, other times quietly and by slipping in non-violent words, always by refusing to use the language and words of war and violence that so often pervade the commonspeak of our country.

    Unfortunately, I cannot find a single time during my entire life when this country called USA has not been meddling with its troops in a foreign land, or subversively operating with the CIA to support merciless dictators deemed to be good for America, or fighting a hot and deadly war somewhere. I’m 66 years old, born at the dawn of the age of nuclear weapons first use and all those years have been filled with USA war and violence someplace on this planet. A sad commentary indeed. The world could have been a much different, much better place had we taken a path of compassion and non-violence.

    FCNL is my bright spot of hope for a different path.

  5. Margaret Neville permalink
    March 4, 2011 5:04 pm

    While “war is not the answer” is a valid slogan, it doesn’t say anything about what is the answer. What alternatives can we propose to war? Could we give humanitarian aid to the rebels in Syria, for example. Can we provide more scholarships for Arab nationals to study politcs and peace in the United States. It is not enough to simply say that War is not the Answer–we need alternatives to violence.

  6. Cavender permalink
    March 4, 2011 6:42 pm

    The idea of an intervention in Libya makes me sick. By this point America’s government needs to learn the flaws of intervening. even if i was in support of an intervention at this point it may be stretching ourselves to far anyway. Another thing is that i don’t see the point in intervening who would we be helping? The people of Libya need to help themselves to fight for their rights. I cant see this violence in Libya continuing in the long run.

  7. lucy permalink
    March 6, 2011 2:58 pm

    I agree that the US should stay out of Libya. We all saw how the Egyptians were able to bring about democracy on their own and and I don’t see why the Libyans can’t also. Even though Libya’s situation is much more violent, I don’t necessarily see the advantages for a US intervention. This seems like a bad choice, but I also don’t know what some other choices could be for Libya and potentially the US. If your were ad to make the decisions for the situation in Libya what would you do?

  8. March 6, 2011 5:35 pm

    I definitely agree that war is not the answer, how ever how would you have the U.S. respond to the pressures from the International community to step in and do something? In my opinion it is ridiculous to think that the U.S. should have anything to do with the protests going on in another country. This is the time for the Libyans to fight for their country, I do not believe they would want anyone interfering no matter how violent things become. Quadaffi is almost certainly insane, I can not expect him to hold on to power for much longer despite his claim that he will never leave Libya.
    My only question would be why our government would even consider another war at this point? Yes it is true that Libyans are suffering right now, but this will only fuel their desire for change in the long run. My fear is that if America chooses to become involved in another endless campaign the loss of human life will increase exponentially, somthing which will fuel only antiamerican sentiment.

  9. Devon permalink
    March 6, 2011 11:05 pm

    I support our military but I often do not support when the government send our military. I think that an intervention in Libya is the worst possible thing that could be done. I think that this is something that need to run it’s course and it is not something that has anything to do with our country. I have never understood why we as Americans feel that it is necessary to swoop down and save other countries from themselves. Americans would have been furious if some other country showed up and tried to stick themselves in the middle of our civil war. We should not involve ourselves. The situation in Libya is not yet a war and we should do our best to prevent that by staying out of it.

  10. russ kowalski permalink
    March 7, 2011 4:07 pm

    I’ve just read that the Congress is considering closing the National Parks as a cost saving measure and, yet, some members would like to involve the U.S. in North African civil unrest!! There’s BIG money in war!!(not for most of us, though!)

  11. Allie permalink
    March 8, 2011 5:14 pm

    I think the reason that the U.S. is inclined to send our own troops to intervene is because of our own success within our country. We don’t see Japan putting a no-fly zone on Libya, do we? No. Because of America’s self inflated egotistical attitude. We feel that everything is our business and it is our duty as a “super power” to fix the problems in the world. This is obviously impossible and an unrealistic idea. I think that the best way for America to help out Libya is to get out and let them figure it out themselves. Just my opinion.

  12. Joseph Maizlish permalink
    March 8, 2011 6:25 pm

    Still another situation set up in part by U.S. “aid.” Over this decade the U.S. and European governments have sold weaponry to the Libyan government. Now the administration “discovers” problems with Ghaddafi. When the forty years of oppression breaks into the news the U.S. “rhetorical president” tries to sound like a human rights hero to climb on the high horse and admonish some ex-ally for the behavior which made that ally an attractive servant of the empire until the breakdown of the oppression. And the rhetoric usually has some veiled or non-veiled threats of violence to show how suddenly serious the administration is.

    As to whether “war is the answer,” that depends on what the question is.

    If the question is how to maintain geopolitical domination and resource control in distant lands, war may indeed on occasion be “the answer.”

    If the question is how to develop cooperative relationships with people and assistance to their needs, whether the people are in the U.S. or elsewhere, war is the opposite of the answer.

  13. Janet M. Rife permalink
    March 8, 2011 6:28 pm

    The quote from Gates was surprising and welcome. Why didn’t I read in the Washington Post of this address to West Point by the Secretary of Defense? This is a high level statement with a lot of punch in the direction of new thinking. I hope Obama is looking hard for someone to replace Gates, who seems to want very much to retire.

  14. March 8, 2011 6:44 pm

    Is there any way Gaddafi could be “captured”, restrained and hauled to a secure hospital where he would receive medication and counseling for his condition of advanced insanity? Call it a Plot to Save Libya. Right now I understand Big G and his supporters have hired mercenaries to bomb and strafe the protesters, the civilian population and anyone else who happens to be in the way. I believe that sending troops into Libya, even if under the command of the UN, would be just what the war profiteers and oil barons would like best. So we should continue with freezing Big G assets, a firm and complete arms embargo, help with the refugees and wounded wherever possible, and working with neighbouring Arabian and African countries to form and maintain an interim cease-fire.

  15. Freya De Cola permalink
    March 8, 2011 10:12 pm

    This would seem to be a good time for FCNL to mobilize its supporters, like me, and give us a simple message of some alternatives to military intervention that we can advocate to our members of Congress, the president and also to Secretary of State Clinton, whose responses to the situation in the Middle East I find troubling. To give interventionists the benefit of the doubt, they are probably motivated at least in part by concern about the attacks on ordinary Libyans, with the resulting injury and death that could be on a large scale, unlike Tunisia and Egypt. We need to offer viable alternatives for peaceful responses to violence, and the more we coordinate our message, the more effective it will be.

  16. Brian permalink
    March 8, 2011 11:27 pm

    NFZ in Lybia can only misuse American resource. It will turn Muslims together to fight American and Westerns. Others can ask:” Why no NFZ in Sudan and Etheopia in the past?” Let Lybians alone to fight. We should focus on economy, not war. The rebel have no direction but only violence. They can cheat us anytime. If we help them, everything will go worse and more unrest.

    May God bless you!

  17. Philip Ratcliff permalink
    March 9, 2011 5:36 pm

    It’s ironic, but establishing a no-fly zone, will probably prolong the fighting and dying. Eliminate the Libyan air force, and the forces will be more equal. The fighting will be a long, slow, slog. With an air advantage, Ghadafi’s side will probably win. We don’t like it, but it’s not our fight.

  18. Russell permalink
    March 9, 2011 7:10 pm

    Read George Will today – “On Libya – ask the right questions.” Not often I can agree with Mr. Will, but today I can. Unfortunate that someone did not ask the right questions about Iraq or Afghanistan. The funding for the military portion of our Federal budget has to be on the table . . . NOW.

  19. Shah permalink
    March 19, 2011 12:06 am

    Dear Mr Will, I would like to thank you for your article. By reading your article and others people’s comments I became speechless. As we all know and deeply understand that no wars bring happiness and peace to human kind. I always pray and hope that the united nation will understand this.


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