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March 20, 2011



This is my first comment but I have been following your blog for a bit now.

In my opinion, you name some very valid points in your analysis of this situation. I am German myself and somewhat split on the issue. Given our history and my gratefulness for the intervention of the allies during WWII it is hard for me to argue against military aid for Lybia, where the majority of people feel repressed and have asked for international help to overthrow the current regime. However I do agree, that in all situations, costs (both short-term and longterm and of course also in terms of innocent lives) as well as benefits must be considered. I hope that this is done but I also agree that we simply cannot (and probably should not) intervene anywhere. Which criteria to apply is a very difficult and probably arbitrary question. I am not sure what the right answer is, but in Lybia's case I do tend to support the military intervention. It feels weird to be "pro war", but in this case, somehow, I am.


Apologies for spelling Libya wrong!


I doubt you'll find this persuasive but one thing that I imagine was included in the calculation of costs and benefits has to do with the costs of non-intervention even if the intervention *fails*. It is reasonable (I think) to assume that many of these oil-producing autocracies will cave in sooner or later and when they do, the stance of the Western powers towards pro-democracy movements will be remembered.

Btw, "a notion of legality that hinges on the opinion of Russia or China is a pretty feeble one."

No, how one of the five permanent members vote is in fact what determines whether something like this has UN authority. There's nothing 'feeble' about it. You could argue it's highly unsatisfactory, but that is another matter.


Shuggy -

If it fails - where "fails" presumably means "doesn't avert Gaddafi's violence against protestors" - it's liable to be seen as more malignant than inaction, no? Even if the intervention has virtuous motives why would anyone remember that more than a good loser in sport?


"it's liable to be seen as more malignant than inaction, no?"

Possibly but I wouldn't have thought so - although we'll have to wait and see.

Apart from the obvious, it seems to me that there are two disadvantages of inaction: the Western powers would be seen (more than they are already) as friends of tyrants in the region - and other autocracies would have taken it as a signal that they could use any means necessary to crush dissent with impunity.

Richard Gadsden

Hmmm, one view I take is that intervention where there is a fighting force to intervene on the side of has a number of advantages that reduce the costs.

First, if there is a civil war going on, then lots of people are going to die anyway, so it is possible that the intervention will reduce the number; intervening against a sitting dictator requires accepting killing people in the short term to save people in the long term.

Second, if the intervention is successful, there is a force to hand over power to, meaning the intervention will end sooner (reducing the cost) and improving the chances that there will be an improved government - and also meaning that the intervenors are not obligated to seize control of the country and run it themselves while establishing an alternative government, in that the "rebel" forces are an alternative government.


The key cost-benefit analysis lies in comparing the nature of the immediate risks of action and inaction.

The risks of the current action would appear to be more predictable, quantifiable and controllable. Stray missiles and bombs are unlikely to result in the deaths of more than a few hundred innocent civilians. We also have the option of ceasing our action or changing course should we judge the costs to be excessive.

In choosing inaction, we would be gambling on the doubtful ability of the rebels to resist Gadaffy’s forces or the even more doubtful possibility that the colonel would not behave like a bloodthirsty tyrant once he had achieved his victory. Were these gambles to fail, we would be confronted with a truly terrible humanitarian catastrophe that would be almost impossible to prevent or halt.

For all the iniquities of the regimes in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia etc, in none of them does a humanitarian catastrophe of this scale appear to be imminent. And that is why, in this case, the “whaddabout” argument does not stack up.

Peter Briffa

For a blogger who seems to relish his cynicism about politicians this post strikes me as remarkably naive. I would have thought that a cost-benefit analysis is precisely the first thing they are thinking of. "What's in it for me?" is what floats their boats. You seem to be confusing rhetoric with behaviour.

Paul Sagar

"It is reasonable (I think) to assume that many of these oil-producing autocracies will cave in sooner or later and when they do, the stance of the Western powers towards pro-democracy movements will be remembered. "

What on Earth entitles you to think that?

The left's optimism about the potential for nice regimes in nasty parts of the world never ceases to amaze me, independent as it is of all available evidence and American foreign policy precedent.


"What I’m appealing for, then, is that intervention be approached as an empirical issue amenable to economic analysis"

I agree with Peter Briffa. The ideological arguments come later to try and justify the economic analysis. The problem isn't the lack of cost-benefit analysis but that the analysis is always completely rubbish, from the Somme, to appeasement with Hitler, to Vietnam and Iraq. We're just crap at predicting what will happen when we start blowing things up. I suppose wars against evil dictators are quite unpredictable.


Maybe you and Cameron are talking of different things. Your analysis is about when we should act and he is talking about when we can.
In Lybia there is a war because many things have come together. Some of them: lybian opposition asked for it, France was willing to and so was Cameron, the Arab League asked for a protected zone, there are the Egypt and Tunisia recent revolutions (no manifestations against it in arab countries), Gadafi anounced blood when taking Basora (wich was really silly of him), Clinton wanted to make a point to Iran and Susan Rice probably does not want another Rwanda, Obama thoght that an exclusion zone was not enough and Rice got him the Russia and China abstentions,...
Would all that happen were it the Ivory Coast? Most probably no and so we go to Lybia and not there.
Ah, I did not mention the petrol: whoever is in charge there, we will get it.


the first hurdle of any intervention is whether it is even *possible*... it's easy to see that we don't have the power to enforce a no-fly zone in (say) China, even if we wanted to...


The problem with your cost benefit approach is it is too Rational. If the "rebels" were rational they would not have resisted armed men trying to murder them when they were unarmed. Gaddafi and his supporters are clearly not totally rational either. Our reaction to heroic acts borne of long oppression or brutal inhumanity is not rational. But emotional. The ability of some of the locals to speak english and use mobile phones and the internet to talk to western media is an important factor in making the situation one we can identify with so we are like a theatre audience with our emotions engaged. Thus politicians are under preassure to back words with action regardless of the uncertainty.Finally may I say that a key problem with Intervention is that it can be presented as Imperialism. But in fact it may need a period of effective Imperialism to build the base for a Liberal Democratic order. It is not clear you can get the required result without an occupation force. It took the military occupation of Germany in 1945 to set up the modern german state and Germany was a Europen Nation with a christian culture and a tradition of Law and Government like that of other European states.Before Hitler got his hands on it and decided to rip up a thousand years of progress. The usa, canada, and Australia are Representative democracies at least partly as they are plants grown from the stem of "England the mother of Parliaments." How do you set up that system without grafting new plants from the stem?


The cost benefit analysis you ask for is part of the legal criteria embodied in the responsibility to protect, predominantly the issue of proportionality. See here for a good summary:
This is basically just war theory.

However, the notion of cost and benefit depends on where you are at the time. If some fascist was raining shells on me and threatening to slaughter everyone for the temerity to demand democracy, I wouldn't be worried about the costs, I would want someone to arm me and kill the bastards. There is a moral, humanitarian argument that implicitly sees that the costs the victims pay for inaction and the benefits they receive from action are overwhelming.

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