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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Libya: a just war?

William Oddie, an eminent precursor on the road to Rome, argues that the air strikes on Libya meet the Catholic church's five criteria for a just war. He writes persuasively, but I find that the argument falls short.

One point, not the most important: in his enthusiasm for smart weapons which can take out tanks with a minimum of risk to civilians, Dr Oddie seems to forget that the youing men inside the tank get taken out too. True, they are combatants, and true, they may have much civilian blood on their hands, but it is still not permissible to dismiss their lives as of no account.

The more crucial point arises from the unpacking of the notion that the intervention is all about "protecting civilians". For we are not doing that in any direct way, by building bomb shelters for them or evacuating them. We are taking out tanks, and whilst tanks are useful for massacring civilians they are by no means essential. So if we are protecting civilians it is by the indirect means of enabling the rebels to beat back Gaddafi's forces. And since that is the case I think it is absurd to suggest, as Dr Oddie does, that we can bracket out any concerns about the outcome of the conflict.

Here's one outcome: we decide at some point that we have done enough bombing, whereupon the tide immediately turns in Gaddafi's favour. What's to stop him carrying through all the massacres he had planned in the first place, plus a few extra since the bombing will have given him and his supporters many more scores to settle?

Outcome two: when we stop bombing we leave a standoff which will be resolved, if at all, only after an indeterminate period of civil war. What are the chances that this will further the protection of civilians?

Outcome three: we enable the rebels to overthrow Gaddafi and form a government. But Gaddafi's supporters now turn insurgent. Iraq all over again. Same question as in outcome two.

Outcome four: the rebels manage to utterly defeat Gaddafi and his forces (though miraculously without killing large numbers of his civilian supporters). However, because the rebels are a hopelessly disparate bunch containing everything from pro-Western liberals to al Qaidists, they turn against each other as soon as Gaddafi has fallen and plunge the country into continued civil war. Same question again.

Outcome five: Gaddafi utterly defeated, but this time the rebels hold together and form an effective government. But the bad news is that it turns out that the al Qaidists are the predominant force among them. The government is more repressive even than Gaddafi's. All dissent is met with massacres.

Outcome six: under the impact of the bombing Gaddafi has a change of heart and sues for peace. A peace conference is held at which all parties agree to forego reprisals and hold free elections. An elected government takes power and duly submits to the verdict of the voters five years later. The people of Libya live happily ever after.

So one scenario out of six in which the criterion for a just cause to which Dr Oddie refers - "prevention of a worse evil" - is met. Is there as much as a one in six chance of it turning out that way? I doubt whether the Sarbameron troika are that sanguine, and it's very clear that the Pope isn't. Dr Oddie knows very well what a wise man the Pope is; he and many others should not resist being guided by that wisdom now.

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