Libya and the Temptations of Geo-Political Reason

While Libya quakes, an assorted commentariat tussles over the legacy of the new military humanism and its possible revival. That such statements are now tempered with a caution absent for Kosovo and its successors mitigates matters somewhat, but not much. Despite the disavowal and dissimulation, the conclusions reached are much the same. Something must still be done. There is an obscenity about this rush to engage in geo-political reason, to pronounce on real and illusory national interests, to play soldier by speculating on where to move the battalions on the great chess board of high politics. In periods of less emergency, we might speak of a complex weaving of beliefs and interests, of competition between economic, military and political logics, or of international statecraft as a particular and peculiar kind of practice. But in the face of NFZ+, RPGs and UNSCRs, such vulgar and academic maneuvers appear to be surplus to requirements, for the cheer-leaders as much as for the poo-poo-ers.

But the advocates and the critics are closer now too. Both want the revolution to succeed. Both are wary or hostile to the rationales of power. Both see the possibility of a sub-optimal partition or stalemate. And both are engaging in some wishful thinking, whether by assuming that the authorisation of the UN or the absence of explicit lies will limit the reach of militarism or in simply asserting that the Revolution is on the verge of seizing the state without (faux) internationalism. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some fairly compelling assessments available.

All of this opens up a space for further discursive refinements. We might do well to talk about the confusion between ad bellum and in bello concerns, or about the wisdom of replacing a concern with the consequences of intervention with a folk-psychological assessment of the true intentions of its instigators, as if the legacy of ‘muscular liberalism’ mattered more than the fate of those with some rather more pressing concerns.

But what of the sudden convergence around a statist geopolitics? For all concerned, the national security imaginary seems strangely persistent. The unified actor returns, seizing the moment to fulfil interests, whether in the democratic peace or in oil futures. For critics in particular it appears self-evident that intervention is meant to rehabilitate The Armed Wing Of Amnesty International and to construct a bulwark against anti-hegemonic and anti-systemic movements in the Middle East and North Africa. And evidence from the corridors of power seems to show it.

But this forestalls analysis of the contestation and emptiness of such ideas, just as it assumes that extending the reach of Empire and reviving the Responsibility to Protect advance the same ends. Why, for example, would such a transparent boon to American power be opposed by military leaders and heads of national intelligence? And why the public dissension on whether regime change itself is at stake? Avowed liberals are more sceptical of intervention than the notion of them as useful idiots makes out, just as those making the fullest identification with the ends and reasons of state call out intervention as the wishful thinking of ideologues rather than a cool calculation of power politics. And if Samantha Power counts as a national-interest Realist, then at the very least there’s a serious case of false consciousness awaiting our diagnosis.

Perhaps we cannot but engage in armchair warrioring. There is much at stake, and it is indeed arguable that the ‘we’ of the West are compelled to speak and to argue by virtue of the preponderence of our states alone. But the simplifications of force projection and national interest are no firmer in critique than in promulgation. There are interests and there are consequences, but they are as likely to be mixed and contradictory as they are to be set by hegemonic consensus. And such interpretive games are not themselves without risk, alluring as they may be with the promise of an emancipatory calculus and a judicious application of violence harnessed to our political fantasies.

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8 thoughts on “Libya and the Temptations of Geo-Political Reason

  1. Great piece,your blog gives a real brand new dimension of IR analysis and international politics.The ”bad” thing is that you won’t find easily commentators or followers especially non native english speakers since the language is as sophisticated as the analysis(and it should be).Keep writing!

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  2. The words of this post have now passed before my eyes a couple of times, and I even followed the link to the Time blog in one of your paragraphs. Admittedly I have not read this post with the care one might give a difficult passage in, say, Marx’s Capital. With that caveat, I cannot figure out what you think about the intervention: on balance for, on balance against, too soon to tell, mixed feelings, ambivalent? I guess I’d have to read you as ambivalent, if I’m managing to squeeze any sense out of “the simplifications of force projection and national interest are no firmer in critique than in promulgation.” Of course if you think that this intervention is an alluring mirage of the putatively ‘judicious’ application of force “harnessed to our political fantasies,” then I guess you’re against it. Beats me (which, in the unlikely event this Americanism has not circulated in the LSE, means roughly: “huh?”)

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    • Sorry to make you struggle so much for sense LFC (although I must say I wonder why you keep coming here and telling us that you haven’t read our posts with much care).

      The post is intended to be about how we are tempted to engage in guesses and postures about what nation states should do as part of their foreign policies and the way we try and recruit that to particular political ends (whether in favour of ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘rebellion’ or ‘stability’ or whatever). It seems to me that in many cases this involves a move away from how we would normally think about geo-politics and state action to a series of simplifications of the kind we usually criticise (for example, that there is a unified ‘national interest’ or that the application of force can be sufficiently controlled to deliver certain ends or whether we can engage in counter-factuals of the form ‘the rebels will win if we don’t intervene’).

      Which is all to say that yes, I’m ambivalent about the intervention itself. More clearly, I’m of the view that it’s short-term impact is doubtlessly useful for the rebels (who I wish to see victorious) but it’s long-term impact may well involve a partition of the country, a reversal of the bottom-up character of the revolutions so far or a more extensive involvement of US interests in the region (which I would see as contrary to the stated ends of the intervention).

      But more importantly, I’m uncomfortable and even hostile to the ready way in which we engage in those kind of manoeuvres and become what might otherwise be called ‘armchair general’.

      Hopefully, that’s a bit clearer.

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      • That is a bit clearer, thanks. And you do sound this theme in the opening of the post. But I think to some extent the hazards of oversimplification are inherent in commenting in real time and on fragmentary information on this sort of thing. There are blogs where people who consider themselves knowledgeable (and who may in fact be knowledgeable) on the details of military strategy pronounce on such matters (there is even a blog called Armchair Generalist, which I look at only very infrequently). I don’t see the temptation to indulge in simplifications to be quite as prevalent or insidious, I guess, esp. one once has discounted for the usual noise-to-signal ratio in a lot of public discussion. But I do understand what you were driving at.

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