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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‘The only answer was slaughter, and the only way to do it was fast’; In which others read the autohagiography of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair so I don’t have to

The publication of Blair’s recollections and rationalisations has been a gift to many of us. Not content with the material for satire he provided during office, he has now furnished us with further damning evidence in his own hand. A weighty (non est) mea culpa. Pat psychologising, quasi-religious conviction, the hamfisted use of historical analogy and that overwrought prose (now infamous: “I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct, knowing I would need every ounce of emotional power to cope with what lay ahead“). All of this has enabled some incisive commentary, and some barely contained rage: Tony as Captain Stanhope; Tony as the ‘preacher on a tank’ (Dick Cheney’s apposite barb); Tony as delusional Christ-Pope in waiting.

Three thoughts. First, there is the question of how we can now read Blair, and Iraq as the exemplar of his style of thought. What were the mechanisms that allowed the clear advice of experts of all stripes, and the opposition of most of the population, to be translated into an unbending commitment to the projection of American power? A familiar answer is that the New Labour project was driven by the energies of Blair’s religious (or religious-like) faith, his commitment and earnestness and belief. But the scene set by A Journey and its deconstructions is far more prosaic. On the one hand, there is plenty of garden-variety ‘misperception’. Actors chose the analogies that fit their pre-established understandings, over-emphasised the pressures for action in their calculations, and failed in their responsibility to examine situations from more than one angle. These are the kind of slippages that pop up enough for some systems- and cognitively-minded scholars to trace their role in wars across the ages.

On the other hand, there is Blair’s extraordinary decisionism. Something must be done, and someone must do it. But this is in some ways the reverse of a faith-based politics. It was not belief that guided Blair, and certainly not carefully delineated actions set out by dogma or doctrine. It was the absence of such a schema which mattered, at least on his own account. “The pieces are in flux”. Hence the insistence on leadership, on grasping the truth and necessity of the moment. What continues to intrigue is this movement between an over-abundance of values and the hardened core of Machiavellianism. The necessity was never one dictated by the ends of justice, but only that of power and its demands.

Yes, ideology was at play. But structurally so. Not in the bible readings and personal psycho-dramas of two little rich boys from New Haven and Edinburgh, but in a much less appreciated, and much more insidious sense. A subjectivity with a sociology. There is something typically Žižekian about this apparent paradox. As with others nominally committed to grand projects, the issue is not one of hypocrisy, so much as of the means by which raw power and purity of purpose can be experienced as synonymous:

the figure of the ‘big Other’ as a background against which [to] exert… ruthlessness and drive for power. They had displaced their belief onto this Other, which, as it were, believed on their behalf. Continue reading