Monday, March 21, 2011

The Meaning of War

As American missiles rain down on the outskirts of Tripoli, and French and British jets begin the enforcement of a "no fly zone," I find myself really struggling with what Western leaders are saying.  For all of the protestations of concern for the well-being of the Libyan people coming from the mouths of Western leaders, I just can't bring myself to buy it.

The Libyan rebels are not, as some have misidentified them, freedom fighters.  Best I can tell, they are a random assemblage of folks who don't like Gaddafi.  That includes some liberal and progressive sorts who justifiably felt oppressed by his despotism.  But it also appears to include plenty of people who don't like him because they are from different tribal regions than his base, or who oppose him because he's a basically secular dictator and they are radically fundamentalist.   The rebels are an inchoate mess.  Images of them show functionally zero command and control, and no training.  They seem to be good at milling around in clusters, or firing semi-randomly at things, or running for cover. 

Gaddafi is hardly someone whose grasp on power I would support.  His regime has been kicking around forever.  Gaddafi's Libya doesn't have many friends in the Arab world, where his secular state socialism puts him out of sync with both the monarchists and the theocrats.  He's also almost universally disliked in Europe's social democracies, thanks to his support of some rather unpleasant terror activities.  We don't like him much, either, and for good reason.

But what we're seeing now is not about our concern the liberty of the poor oppressed people of Libya.  We aren't, as one commentator absurdly put it, siding with freedom fighters against a cruel and oppressive tyrant suppressing his people by force.  That is not why we are there, and not why the French are there, and not why the Brits are there.

We are there because of the oil.  There is no other national interest involved.

Of course, we won't hear this from our leaders.  Such a rationale seems too crass and self serving.  It makes us seem ignoble.   But were our noble rhetoric matched with action consistently, we'd have been on the ground in the Sudan for a decade.  The difference is petrochemical.  This is a clear and golden opportunity to replace the quixotic and suddenly vulnerable despot of an oil rich state with someone more beholden to the West for their grasp on power.   That new leadership will, of course, insure that some or all of Libya's significant reserves of oil are in the hands of a friend in this post-peak-oil time of dwindling resources.

So to do this, we have gone to war.  We are at war in Libya.  Now, we deny this.  We're just acting in an international coalition in a tactical and measured operation to protect the civilians of Libya.  But the actuality of it is clearly different.   War is the use of coordinated and intentional lethal and coercive force in a struggle for land or materiel between nation states.  That is what we are doing.  To argue otherwise is absurd.

Let us for a moment imagine that an international coalition...Canada, Belgium, and Costa Rica...had just levelled Andrews and Quantico.  The East Wing was in flames, punctured by a Canadian cruise missile.  The surface to air missile batteries that ring the nation's capital...they do, you know...were in ruins.   Belgian Sopwith Camels buzz ominously overhead.

Would we be at war?  Would we perceive ourselves as being at war?  Of course.  So what we are doing meets every set of criteria for war.  That we haven't taken certain formal constitutional steps is immaterial.  Reality is reality.

And in the reality of war, what a nation says never matches it's actions.  You say you're going to do one thing.  You do another, unanticipated thing.  In Sun Tzu's the Art of War, that ancient guide to the essence of effectively applying coercive power, this is made clear.  Let no one really know what you are doing, not even your own people.  Especially not your own people.

It's for this reason that America's "support role" means that we lob Tomahawk missiles at Libya by the hundreds.   It's for this reason that our "support role" involves British and French jets relying on us for targeting and mission coordination.  It's for this reason that our "support role" has American military power directly involved in striking targets.  It's for that reason that our "no-fly-zone" now somehow includes tanks and trucks and personnel, which only fly...briefly...after we've hit them with a JDAM.  It's for that reason that our "no-fly-zone" includes taking out Gaddafi's command and control, by which we mean taking out Gaddafi himself.

If it looks like a war, and smells like a war, and burns like a war, and kills like a war, it's war.