Friday, April 15, 2011

Why having an opinion is hard: Libyan edition

Some commentators have a fully-conceived opinion on whether the intervention in Libya was warranted. Unfortunately, I do not. One reason is that, well, I am not knowledgeable enough. The second is that it is quite complicated.

That was nice throat-clearing. Now, practically, here is what I mean. Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy is becoming more and more convinced that the intervention was a mistake. He argues 2 points

  • There is fewer and fewer evidence that Gaddafi was preparing a massacre in Benghazi, the main reason for UN intervention and the main rhetorical tool used by Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron to justify quick(and, in my opinion, not-publicly-deliberated-enough ) the UN resolution and the military sorties.
  • There is weaker and weaker evidence that the decision of military intervention was constitutional in the US.
I don't have anything to say on the second point. I invite you to go read the opinion of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel statement that the intervention was constitutional, and the counter-opinion of Michael Glennon, a professor in international law.

The first part relied on an op-ed by Alan Kuperman who argued that Gaddafi only threatened the rebels, and that there is no evidence that a massacre would be perpetrated since we have not seen anything of the sort in the other cities that his loyalists re-captured:
The best evidence that Khadafy did not plan genocide in Benghazi is that he did not perpetrate it in the other cities he had recaptured either fully or partially — including Zawiya, Misurata, and Ajdabiya, which together have a population greater than Benghazi.
The argument makes sense. However, today, we learn from Human Rights Watch and the New York Times that Gaddafi is using cluster bombs in civilian areas.  What is a cluster bomb? The one the NYT reporter found is described as
a Spanish-produced MAT-120 120mm mortar projectile, which opens in mid-air and releases 21 submunitions over a wide area. Upon exploding on contact with an object, each submunition disintegrates into high-velocity fragments to attack people and releases a slug of molten metal to penetrate armored vehicles.
And that's not all:
The cluster munitions are not the only indiscriminate heavy weapon system to imperil the city’s neighborhoods. The Qasr Ahmed residential district near the port was struck Thursday by multiple rockets, known as Grads(...) The Grad barrage on Thursday(...) struck an area without any visible military infrastructure or signs of military activity beyond a roadblock with a lone rebel holding an aged rifle. One rocket landed beside a bakery. Several struck homes. One exploded near a mosque.
It's hard to have an opinion. On the possible massacre at Benghazi, it is clear that we will have a hard time knowing what could have happened. Kuperman probably makes the right comparison: look at similar cities where the "treatment" did not occur: the outcome was not different than where the treatment occured(not a lot of civilian casualties), hence the treatment was unnecessary. But the new information we have makes the case weaker.

When confronted with such problematic issues, where I do not understand how people can have strong opinions on them, I am reminded of this amazing paragraph from Daniel Ellsberg, through Kevin Drum, on the limits of knowledge. Talking to Henry Kissinger at the beginning of his term as National Security Advisor in 1968:
"you're about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.
"I've had a number of these myself, and I've known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn't previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.
"First, you'll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn't, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn't even guess.

Indeed.

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