Theses on Consistency and Intervention

29 March 2011, 1627 EDT

 Since Stephanie has quoted me on the subject, I thought I’d share some thoughts on intervention and consistency.

1.     Consistency is a virtue – but it isn’t the only virtue. Sometimes good judgement points us in the direction of inconsistency; this is so in personal life as well as domestic and international politics. We (most of us) overlook failings in our friends which would upset us in our enemies.  In the realm of sexual politics, we (most of us) cut some slack for Bill Clinton in a way that we wouldn’t, and didn’t, for Clarence Thomas. We (most of us) were prepared to see force used to expel Saddam from Kuwait, but looked the other way when India took Goa or Tanzania overthrew Idi Amin. These are judgements that involve inconsistency but they are, I think, easily defensible on other grounds.
2.     The only consistent approach to intervention is ‘don’t intervene’.  Those with the capacity to act can’t act everywhere and there is no algorithm that will tell us which of the numerous bad things going on in the world deserve the attention of the well-meaning powerful, and which don’t. If consistency is crucial, the only way to achieve it is by not acting.
3.     Many people are happy with the idea of universal inaction; after all, that way there is no collateral damage from enforcing no fly zones, no accidents that have to be apologised for, no need for an exit strategy and so on. But bystander status doesn’t give us clean hands. If those who have the power to act sit and watch while atrocities are committed which they could have prevented then they share at least some of the responsibility for what takes place.

4.     It is interesting that many people on the left are happy to make this argument when it comes to famine relief or the responsibility to act to combat world poverty; they are also happy to use the argument in those cases where no intervention takes place.  But when states actually intervene rather than stand by and watch they are accused of imperialism. No pleasing some people. Of course, the powerful are indeed morally-responsible bystanders in those cases where they don’t intervene. There is no way round this – but it isn’t a reason for being a bystander everywhere.
5.     Actual interventions are never simply ‘values-bases’; they always involve old fashioned, selfish, national interests. There is no reason to be ashamed of this; mixed motives are the norm when it comes to state as well as personal behaviour. No state is going to risk the lives of its soldiers or incur the financial costs of action for altruistic reasons alone.
6.     This does NOT mean ‘it’s all about oil’. If it were all about oil, the logical thing to do would be to look the other way while the Colonel re-establishes control and continue to do business with him as we have in the past. The reasons for acting in Libya as opposed to Côte d’Ivoire, is certainly partly because the former has more oil (and oil is important to all of us) but it’s also because Libya is a Mediterranean country which means that the fallout from a catastrophe is much closer to home for the Europeans who have pushed for action, and because if the Colonel remains in power it is a racing certainty that he will return to his old terrorism-supporting ways – indeed he’s already threatened as much. These are all good reasons that act to support the desire to prevent a massacre in Benghazi and elsewhere and to pressure Gaddafi and sons to take a long holiday in Zimbabwe, and they are all morally legitimate reasons.
In short, intervention in this case may or may not be a good idea – on balance I think it is a good idea – but, either way, arguments about consistency are beside the point.