Can We Please Stop Denying that We Prevented a Massacre in Benghazi?


The backlash to the Libyan intervention has begun, and to be sure, it is a controversial mess. My own support was lukewarm; like the president, I felt my hand was forced by the likelihood that Qaddafi would butcher thousands of people had he taken Benghazi two weeks ago. I feel like the president gave a good-enough rationale for the intervention, and western governments are trying hard to avoid getting pulled into an Iraq-style nation-building mess. I realize that ‘good-enough’ feels like an awful cop-out when it comes to war, but the world is pretty d— messy, and the acrimony of the debate tells me that no one really knows what we should do (let’s all at least admit that). Applying Clausewitzian-Powell Doctrine benchmarks – overwhelming force for a quick victory and a quick, clear exit – fits poorly on the emerging tangle of developing world crises where the issue is not a huge, militarized threat to western security (the Nazis or USSR), but a mix of mass humanitarian slaughter (Rwanda), terrorism (Afghanistan), piracy (Somalia), ethnic cleansing (Balkans), criminal takeovers (parts of Mexico and Columbia), etc. The problem, as Kaplan notes, is the semi-anarchic level of governance in much of the developing world, a problem Barnett tagged years ago as the ‘integrating the gap.’ As I argued last week, imposing Clausewitzian standards on intervention in such conflicts means that we will, then, almost never intervene – as we did not in Rwanda or Darfur.

This strikes me as an analytically clear benchmark for US intervention or not; often tagged as ‘realism,’ it is best associated in international relations theory with Walt and Layne. The problem is that, as critics of realism have argued since Mencian criticisms of Sun Tzu more than two millennia ago, it feels so very cold and heartless. Realists have fought this charge for years. In the end, not intervening in Kosovo, Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda, Libya, etc. means that many people may die (or , in fact, have died), and this pulls on the heartstrings of anyone who thinks that the world should be a less brutal place and that if help is possible, there is a moral case to, if not always intervene, at least debate it and possibly do something. All this is captured in the debate over the responsibility to protect (R2P) that has exploded over the Libyan war.

It seems to me therefore that non-interventionists must defend a position that includes mass butchery as a likely outcome, yet still argue that we should not go in. For obvious reasons, no one really wants to say that in print. In fact the only serious figure I know of to unequivocally state, after the fact, that we still should not have gone into Rwanda, despite all the carnage, is John Bolton. So it strikes me that the current effort to downplay the likelihood of a massacre in Benghazi is driven more by the desire of non-interventionists to avoid the moral posture of having to admit that thousands of bodies, rapes, dead children, torture would nonetheless be ‘ok;’ as Stewart says in the clip on above Bolton, “When someone says would you have stopped the genocide, just say yes, just say yes!” I would still like to hear that case made more vigorously from the non-interventionists; it is analytically required to support the non-interventionist position, and to duck it by disputing the possibility is an analytical and moral dodge.

So consider the following on Benghazi, which I believe forces this issue:

 1. Qaddafi is a known brutal tyrant, with similarly brutal ‘buddies’ like Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), (now deceased) Hafez al Assad (Syria), and Omar el Bashir (Sudan) – all guilty of their own mass slaughters. It seems likely that moving in such circles, which comes at a high price of international respectability, means you don’t care too much about how many of your people will hang. It’s par for the course for these guys. I don’t think anyone disputes the reasonable possibility that Qaddafi would do what his buddy tyrants have also done in similar situations.

2. He and his family went on TV and said they intended a slaughter. His son Saif said there would be ‘rivers of blood in the streets.’ Qaddafi spoke of hunting the rebels ‘like rats, alley by alley.’ The Qaddafis’ various media spokesmen talked in similarly harsh, if less openly explosive ways too. To be sure, they may have been lying. Leaders lie all the time. Non-interventionists argue that this sort of talk was meant to deter other Libyans from joining the rebellion. Perhaps, but the rebellion had already started when Qaddafi started these terrifying ravings. As Pape notes, something like 75% of the country had already risen up against him, so there really wasn’t anyone left to deter. The whole country had already lined up on one side or the other.

Mead calls Qaddafi the ‘Great Loon,’ so maybe he is just too bonkers to know what he is saying. But Post says Qaddafi is more rational than we think. If so, then Gaddafi surely knew that talking like that would attract global attention immediately, and certainly Saif, who lived and was educated extensively in the West (complete with a PhD from the London School of Economics), knew that ‘rivers of blood’ would dramatically raise the likelihood of a western intervention. Despite these obvious ‘audience costs’ in the West (the ‘CNN effect’), they said this stuff anyway. That tells me they meant it.

3. I don’t buy the idea that because Qaddafi forces didn’t engage in mass slaughters in other re-captured cities, that suggests they would not have done so in Benghazi. First, the cities between Tripoli and Beghazi aren’t really ‘cities’ at all. There are only about 6 million people in Libya total, with half of them in just Benghazi and Tripoli. The rest of Libya’s ‘cities’ are more like towns, with Misrata, e.g., having only around 300 k. Further, the civil war has emptied much of the middle coastal strip between Tripoli and Benghazi. Those with rebel sympathies have been moving east for weeks. That means Benghazi is swollen with regime opponents, while the coastal middle towns are emptying. In short, the regime’s greatest opponents are concentrated in Libya’s second city, so the Qaddafi forces’ behavior in small, almost empty places like Brega (15.k) or Ras Lanuf (12.5 k) don’t indicate well what Gaddafi’s behavior in a large, rebel-swollen metropolis like Benghazi would have been.

Second, the towns aren’t really ‘captured.’ The civil war has see-sawed back and forth regularly for weeks now. I recall hearing one CCN reporter saying Ajdabiya has exchanged hand 6 times in as many weeks. The point being, that even as Qaddafi retakes places, his people don’t really have time to ‘hunt them like rats.’ Even mass slaughters take some planning, and his fighters are better needed to keep pushing east. Again, the critical difference would have been the fall of Benghazi. Because that is the ‘capital’ of the resistance, its fall would have likely ended the revolt. Qaddafi would then have the time and political order necessary to begin the re-consolidation of his position. That would be the time to launch his own version of the Hama massacre – after he has won and taken the rebel base.

For another view on why massacre was likley and how that forced action, read this excellent piece.

I may be wrong, and I open to counter-arguments. And of course, we will never know. This is counterfactual reasoning at its most controversial. But the likelihood of a massacre seemed pretty high, at least reasonably high enough to cross the R2P threshold. We stood aside during some truly horrifying atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, and our sense of shame plays a major role in this intervention. Non-interventionists need to address that straight-on, and not duck it by disputing the counterfactual itself. It would take extraordinary (and, honestly, rather disturbing) sang-froid to argue that doing nothing in the midst of butchery is the right thing to do.

17 thoughts on “Can We Please Stop Denying that We Prevented a Massacre in Benghazi?

  1. – My own support was lukewarm; like the president, I felt my hand was forced by the likelihood that Qaddafi would butcher thousands of people had he taken Benghazi two weeks ago. I feel like the president gave a good-enough rationale for the intervention

    Are you a part of the administration? Who forced your hand?


      • Dr. Bob:

        Sorry it was not my intent, but I must say that you have confused me terribly. I really don’t understand how you can write that your own support for action in Libya was lukewarm given what you have already written on the Libyan intervention. Also, is the Secretary of State not speaking for the President or is she on her own (could very well be)? So I asked how you could reconcile what the President stated versus the Secretary’s explanation?


      • Dr. Bob:

        Also, are you implying that the President went to war because of possibilities? That he had no choice? I for one hope that President Obama will learn from this experience. Regardless of what reasons President Bush gave for Iraq, his Iraq War violated just about all the rules of Warfare. Thank goodness for General Patreaus. I am very concerned.


  2. Dr. Bob:

    I am currently watching an international program on whether President Obama deserves the Nobel after having started a new war in Libya. A very distinguished international panel; Americans (both on the right and left) are part of the panel as well. The non-US members of the panel were against the President’s Nobel while both Americans on the panel protected the President. I expected the man on the left to defend the President on Libya but the panelist on the right did so as well. To be fair, many on the American left are against the Libya intervention, Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, etc. A prominent progressive, Andrew Sullivan is also against the intervention. Also to be fair, many on the American right were for it but are now backing away since they expected Gaddafi to fold. Once again, the “Human Factor” in war. The “Human Factor” in war is really amazing.

    No one is disputing that Gaddafi is not a brutal tyrant. After all he played a major role in destroying West Africa. In fact, it can be argued that Gaddafi’s actions in Liberia and Sierra Leone have also translated into the Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast began to fall apart as a result of Liberia years ago. The General Guei, Charles Taylor nexus.

    However Gaddafi and his sons just stating that they were going to slaughter millions is not reason enough to intervene in someone’s civil war. Now we are in this for the long haul. As in Bosnia, it is becoming clear that we will need US boots on the ground to pacify the situation. General Carter Ham, the CO of AFRICOM has already alluded to this.

    As far as R2P, just about every week we are discovering mass graves in the Ivory Coast. Some of these mass murders are attributed to the rebels as well. The main difference is that the Ivory Coast is not an oil producer while Libya is. We have already given the Libyan rebels permission to start selling oil from the oil producing areas that they control.

    Dr. Bob, finally, how do you reconcile the President’s rationale for the Libyan War with Secretary Clinton’s clarification that we went to war because our European Partners convinced us how vital Libya “IS” to their interests?

    Did we temporarily reduce Gaddafi’s ability to kill his citizens, sure. And many people are alive today thanks to our actions. But Gaddafi is right back at it full force committing mass murder. This means that we are now obligated to stop Gaddafi. If the rebels can’t stop him (and by all indications they can’t), then our grunts will have to do it.

    If I take the President’s rationale for action in Libya at face value, then we must keep preventing mass murder in Libya according to his very rationale. If the country is in this for the long haul, then our elected leaders starting with the President must prepare the nation for the sacrifice. The Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives should be next (in preparing the nation) since he backed the President on Libya.

    Also, I realize that I was harsh above, it wasn’t my intent. I must say that I was very surprised at Barnett’s “Esquire” article on the President’s speech. He was playing into the “Shaft” smooth cool blaxploitation view of the African American male. He was attempting to demonstrate how the President was in reality smarter for his reasoning for war than his, I hate to say, former “white boy” colleagues, both Clinton and Bush W. Truly disgusting.

    One more thing, as I have stated before, I acknowledge your consistency because you were calling for action at a time when the US didn’t want to intervene. In fact if I recall, you were tough on the President. I do not agree with your defense of the President’s rationale for war.

    Anyway, I am done with this Libya thing. I goto go. I have actually started watching a program from the American University in Cairo. A discussion on Egypt’s future. One discussant, a female PhD student wants to postpone elections until Egypt is ready. Now, the other discussant (Moslem Brother), wants elections like today. Said the Moslem Brothers only want 30% of the seats right now.


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  4. My take is that Libya was a war of opportunity like Iraq, an optional war in which the instigators (us) believed victory would be quick and easy. In both cases, we were wrong. Bush’s war was much more catastrophically expensive and damaging, but they are of a kind. The difference, I guess, is I always expected shoot-from-the-hip, ask-questions-later rodeo action from Bush. I never thought Obama would exhibit the same weakness.


    • Do you think Obama is shooting from the hip? He seemed awfully reluctant to me. Again, it seemed like his hand was forced by the potential for a massacre. Here is yet another good take on this issue: .

      One reason why I am more sympathetic to this thing than Iraq is because I trust Obama’s judgment in itself. Outsiders like us cannot know all the data that inform policy choices. More will come out later of course, so that we can better judge how our elected officials responded at the time. But the choice had to be made on March 18. Given the compressed time window, I am far more comfortable putting my trust in Obama’s judgment than in W’s. Had W gone the same way, many would have rightfully suspected American empire. Obama is different, so therefore his endorsement carries different weight for me.

      This may sound like a cop-out or partisan hackery – I support it, because Obama supported it, because I voted for him. It’s not meant that way. A lot of other information also suggested that Benghazi’s fall might initiate a bloodbath; even non-internventionist concede that it was a reasonable, if not probable, possibility. But of course that is unknowable and was unknowable before it happened. In such an environment of uncertaintly, I am far more comfortable trusting Obama to make a good decision. Ie, that Obama thought this was a the right thing to do, also helped sway – not decide, but sway – my own judgment. Had Bush, whose decision-making ‘procedures’ I came to dramatically distrust as his presidency wore on, had approached this decision, I would have been more skeptical.


  5. To clarify, what I’m saying is that, ceteris paribus, the world is better off with both Hussein and Qaddafi dead, but there’s no ceteris paribus in war. Had the campaigns been as easy as Bush and Obama thought, then great – the world is a better place, and we haven’t bankrupted ourselves and damaged our credibility. But Americans keep not learning the lesson that it’s incredibly difficult to bomb one’s way to regime change.


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