Riskless in Libya: The Ethical Peril of Zero-Casualty Warfare

…(drum kick)… Yet another new face and mind for The Disorder Of Things. A warm blogospheric welcome to Antoine Bousquet (that’s Dr Bousquet to you), Lecturer in International Politics at Birkbeck. Best known as the author of The Scientific Way Of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (due for review here shortly), Antoine has also published on complexity theory and the science/practice of war more generally.


As the military intervention in Libya enters its fourth month of operations, the tensions within the coalition of NATO countries and partners are perceptibly growing with the lack of any tangible progress towards a resolution of the crisis and the recent reporting of civilian casualties. Without prejudging of the final outcome, one cannot help but see in these developments a further echo between the present war – sorry, intervention – and the Kosovo conflict of 1999. Admittedly this time mandated by a UN Security Council resolution, the action in Libya (a.k.a. Operation Unified Protector) is indeed the latest practical exercise of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, now encapsulated within the wider principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P). Many of the issues and debates raised by that original intervention thus remain as relevant today as they did then.

Although much attention has been focused on the competing claims of universal human rights and inalienable state sovereignty, I want to suggest here that any intervention proposing to act in the name of the former cannot be assessed solely in terms of the inherent merit of such a venture but must just as importantly be examined in view of the means deployed to attain the stated ends. Indeed a marked feature of humanitarian interventions of which Libya is merely the latest instantiation has been the particular form typically taken by military operations, namely that of “riskless” or “zero-casualty” war.

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What We Talked About at ISA: Crisis Mapping and the Rise of Digital Humanitarianism (Part III)

This is the third of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This second section on the decline of cognitive mapping is here. This final section covers the example of a particular technology being used to overcome deficiencies in cognitive mapping. (For the theoretical context, it’s well worth reading the second part of this series.) Much of the empirical research for this section stems from the work of Patrick Meier and others involved heavily in crisis mapping. Patrick’s website is a stellar resource for the changing digital nature of humanitarianism, and is highly recommended.


In the wake of the recent Haitian and Japanese earthquakes, the devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean, and other major humanitarian disasters, increased global attention has been paid to the ways in which actors involved in humanitarianism can and should evolve to deal with these emergency situations. Media, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations have all reflected on the implications and path forward for managing crises, with a wealth of reports emerging in the wake of this decade’s crises.[1]

A similar set of complex crisis situations has become significant recently with the political events currently surging across the Arab world. While analytically distinguishable from humanitarian crises, these political crises share many common aspects and often blur at their boundaries. Political crises typically produce humanitarian crises, while humanitarian crises often stretch the capacities of political actors. The result, in either case, is a situation characterized by its complex and fast-moving nature. Moreover, in both instances there is often a dearth of reliable information. If effective political action is premised upon the conceptual representations of a situation, then rational action becomes nearly impossible in crisis situations. In this regard, the new technologies involved in ‘crisis mapping’ can be seen as a means for political actors to overcome this cognitive gap. Through this case study it can be demonstrated how political actors are in fact constructed not only socially, but also through material technology.

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‘Like A Machete’: Is Viagra A Weapon Of War Rape In Libya?

My friend and colleague Mark Kersten has been drawing my attention over the last weeks to a spate of stories about Libya in which it is claimed Gaddafi has been distributing Viagra as an inducement to sexual violence against ‘enemy’ civilian populations. Colum Lynch reported in late April that Ambassador Susan Rice had cited the use of Viagra and evidence of sexual violence during a meeting of the UN Security Council (although this itself is at least third hand – Lynch seems to have picked up the details from Reuters who were passed the information by a UN diplomat who was in the room). The story seems to have originated, or first surfaced, at The Daily Mail, which claimed “numerous reports” of Viagra use.

The testimony of Suleiman Refadi, an Ajdabiya surgeon, in this Al Jazeera piece is the closest thing to a direct claim that Viagra has been distributed to troops. But, as Lynch points out, Human Rights Watch followed up his allegations and say that Refadi had “no direct evidence”, which I assume means either that he himself hadn’t seen the Viagra and condoms, or that some had been found, but not in any pattern that would associate them with a strategy of war rape. Human Rights Watch have a number of reports and commentaries addressing rape in Libya, but do not seem to have found the Viagra claims credible enough to include. Now the International Criminal Court is investigating. Luis Moreno-Ocampo intimates that he has solid evidence for the claims and declares: “It’s like a machete…It’s new. Viagra is a tool of massive rape.”

That kind of blanket statement makes me suspicious. Reports are so far conflating (or not sufficiently distinguishing) two different claims: 1) that government forces are engaged in rape in Libya; and 2) that Viagra (and sometimes condoms) are handed out as an incentive or aid for that. Claim 1 is entirely plausible and there is already good evidence for it in the case of Libya. Elisabeth Jean Wood has done some important early work on the question of variation in wartime sexual violence and her early conclusions are that there are some contexts in which rape doesn’t occur in war. But the number of such cases is very small. Rape in war is overwhelmingly the norm. This should lead us to a number of questions about type, degree, form, causes and the exact sense in which we mean ‘tool’, ‘weapon’ and ‘strategy’. But reports of rape by soldiers are not in themselves at all surprising.

What is new is the second claim. Continue reading

The Qaddafi Controversy, Regurgitated

You might have thought that the realities of muscular interventionism in Libya had by now trumped the apologetics of constructive engagement. But Benjamin Barber has other ideas. His counter-attack to the nay-sayers deploys several connected themes, all of which appeal, once again, to the purported political realism of befriending Saif Gaddafi and the corresponding idealism and naivety of opposing such benevolent stewardship.

First, the attacks on the fortunate son have been “overwrought”, and have materially endangered the chances of peace by pissing him off. Second, Saif remains “a man divided, torn between years of work on behalf of genuine reform that at times put him at risk”, and thus still open to our charms. Third, he is even now working for civil society and democracy, pressuring his father to release journalists and in effect continuing the work of his foundation as a fifth column within the regime. Yes, Saif has been naughty (I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed), but his intentions are still at least partly good, and failure to achieve a better Libya through a rapprochement with him ultimately condemns we who would rather cling to the saddle of our high-horse than descend into the messy realities of progress.

The riposte is bold, and at least has the merit of maintaining the original analysis, no matter how much short-term developments may seem to degrade it. But the rationalisation, wrapped in what Anthony Barnett so aptly characterises as a ‘cult of sincerity’, falls somewhat short. The central meme, repeated by David Held, represents Saif Gaddafi as an enforcer-cum-reformer of near schizophrenic proportions. While it is (now) readily admitted that he is personally responsible for human wrongs, it also becomes necessary to insist on his internal, and magnificently cloaked, commitment to human rights. This may work for those who knew him personally and remain invested in his personal quirks and charms, but can hardly stand as a recommendation for his role as good faith mediator. As Barber himself argues (with a different intent and a suspect logic) if Saif is both revolution and reaction then he is also neither, and therefore a cipher for the projection of political fantasies.

These justifications repeat binaries of politics/morality and realism/idealism in dismissing critics (we were engaged in a calculated politics while you luxuriate in abstract ethics). Yet they also almost attempt, ham-fisted and inchoate, to escape them. After all, the defence is not that Saif is merely our bastard. Nor is it that he is a true rebel son, prepared to overthrow not only the personal dynamic of filial submission but also the political fatherhood of little green books, torture prisons and outré couture. He is said to be both, flickering and indistinct, as if this commends him. As if he can only change things because he is the natural heir of the old order. He moves between our worlds, you see. A Venn-diagrammed endorsement.

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The Qaddafi Controversy

Saif Gaddafi (PhD, LSE, 2008) has lost a lot of friends recently. Even Mariah Carey is embarrassed by him now. The institution to which I have some personal and professional attachment is implicated in a number of intellectual crimes and misdemeanours, as may be a swathe of research on democracy itself. Investigations are under way, by bodies both official and unofficial. All of this now feels faintly old-hat (how much has happened in the last month?), even rather distasteful given the high politics and national destinies currently in the balance. So let the defence be pre-emptive: the academy has political uses, and those with some stake in it need feel no shame in discussing that. If crises are to be opportunities, let us at least attempt to respond to them with clarity and coherence. After all, our efforts are much more likely to matter here than in self-serving postures as the shapers of global destiny.

Saif’s academic predicament is both a substantive issue in its own right and a symptom. As substance, there is now a conversation of sorts around complicity and blame. Over the last weeks, David Held has appealed for calm and attempted a fuller justification of his mentorship (Held was not the thesis supervisor and Saif was not even a research student in his Department at the time, although he, um, “met with him every two or three months, sometimes more frequently, as I would with any PhD student who came to me for advice”). Most fundamentally, it was not naivety but a cautious realism based on material evidence that led a pre-eminent theorist of democracy to enter into what we could not unreasonably call ‘constructive engagement’. [1]

Held characterises the resistance of Fred Halliday to all this as reflecting his view that “in essence, [Saif] was always just a Gaddafi”, which of course makes him sound like someone in thrall to a geneticist theory of dictatorship. The actual objection was somewhat more measured, and, if only ‘in retrospect’, entirely astute:

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Excuses In Our Sleep: Libya, the Arms Trade, Universities and the Political Economy of Human Rights

A common purpose
Gains value as a common goal
Let’s flail together
If we must flail at all.
Deep in the heart of the battle
Caught in the switch of the flow
Freedom from notes, she sells freedom from songs
She sells freedom and arms Eritrea.
I could have made these excuses in my sleep
As if anyone had doubted them at all
But if we arm Eritrea we won’t have to pay her
And everyone can go home.

Future Of The Left, ‘Arming Eritrea’ (2009)

This now fairly-widely disseminated video of Saif Gaddafi brandishing his militarised manhood and promising death can only fuel the paroxysms of guilt and denial afflicting those previously enamoured of him. Not a topic to be neglected, fersure, and one that will be returned here at The Disorder Of Things soon (I promise). But there is another element at play, and one rather more materially linked to massacre and repression. Where are the guns coming from?

Last month, The Guardian engaged in one of its periodic moments of data-explication, borrowing somewhat from Dan O’Huiginn to set out which regimes get UK arms exports, and how much. Since David Cameron is unashamed in his claims that we’re merely helping democracies protect themselves (barring minor hiccups), the numbers and relations make interesting reading. The conventional (if perhaps flawed) metric for such political goods as freedom and democracy is that provided by Freedom House. The top five Middle East and North African beneficiaries of UK military export licences in 2009-2010 were Algeria (£270 million), Saudi Arabia (£64 million), Libya (almost £34 million), the United Arab Emirates (almost £16 million) and Jordan (£12 million).

Every single one is listed as ‘Not Free’ in the Freedom House Index for 2010.

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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?  Continue reading

Libyan cash and the LSE: a deeper problem

As Qaddafigate rolls on, and its luminaries publicly distance themselves or fall on their swords, a repeated line marks the public justification: there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research, there was no influence over research.  This is, as far as anyone can see, true – there is no evidence, even in the most scathing denunciations, to suggest that there was any attempt to influence the outcomes of the research programme. Even so, the School have rapidly appointed an investigation into this very issue.

Whilst many have been relieved by this, I find myself more deeply disturbed. Why is it that the regime of an eccentric and violent autocrat can slide into bed so easily with a research programme on governance and democratisation? Continue reading