Why war is wrong, part 2: counting the costs

When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill

Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.

The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?

In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.

One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?

In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.

The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.

Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.

So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.

Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?

That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.

All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.

Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.

You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.

Why war is wrong

“War does not determine who is right, only who is left.”  — Bertrand Russell

In Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, socialism was creeping into public life. Social democrats were gaining followers and attempting to forge international links with other left-wing groups. They wanted what is today known as social justice. The elites, the great union of political and economic power, felt threatened. We can’t let these people take power, they thought. Trouble brewed and in 1914, World War One began. World War One turned out to be not only the most costly and deadly war in human history but entirely pointless. But one effect it did have was to turn the internationalist socialists into nationalists; to abandon their hopes of improving their country, and to go to war for it. The elites stumbled into, and to an extent concocted, a war, and the people who had nothing to gain took the bait. They died in the millions as a result.

Distracting the people from problems on the home front is just one of many reasons those with militaries at their disposal choose to use them. Most wars start because of disputes between elites, or to maintain the privileged position of empires, states and corporations. Why should the rest of us get caught up in their personal squabbles? Let them have fistfights or duels and stop killing millions of innocent people and spending trillions of our dollars to secure their wealth. This series delves into the reasons we go to war, and the reasons we are fools to do so.

Part 1: Democratic Wars

Though wars may be started by self-interested, psychopathic elites who feel no compunction about killing millions of people, they are held in place by well-meaning but ignorant people who believe that military power is a reasonable way to deal with the world’s problems. (And if you are a libertarian who supports war, I urge you to read this.) There is a dictator somewhere in the world? Let us, the good guys, go take him out. It’s not invasion—it’s liberation. It’s not occupation—it’s nation building. It’s not installing a friendly dictator—it’s democracy promotion. Most of those same people believe that the Allies—again, the good guys—entered the world wars to stop an evil, save the world and secure our freedoms. It is incredible to me how many people in democracies believe that the reason we should vote is because people died in the World Wars to defend our freedom. These people need a history book.

What makes us the good guys, anyway? Ethnocentrism. Our ideas are so good we would be wrong not to impose them on others. Sure, thousands or millions of people might die, but in the long run, they will have democracy, and they will be just as great as us. At the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya, Stephen Walt wrote

Of course, like his predecessors, Obama justifies his resort to force by invoking America’s special place in the world. In the usual rhetoric of “American exceptionalism,” he couched it in terms of U.S. values, its commitment to freedom, etc. But the truly exceptional thing about America today is not our values (and certainly not our dazzling infrastructure, high educational standards, rising middle-class prosperity, etc.); it is the concentration of military power in the hands of the president and the eroding political constraints on its employment.

Now, “America finds itself lurching from conflict to conflict often with little idea of how they will end, other than the hope that the forces of righteousness will prevail,” in the name of humanitarian intervention.

The manichean good guy-bad guy distinction is a great way to rally ignorant people around a war in a place they cannot find on a map. We know nothing about them except that they hate freedom. We like to think that we are the good guys, and our government, who we believe is an extension of our collective will, is the strong arm of our superiority. I am not a moral relativist, but to believe that the US Department of Defense, the Department of State, the CIA and so on are good guys by any measure is a joke. While the good-guy justification might be enough to keep the soldiers showing up and the public overlooking the enormous costs of war in blood and treasure, it is not why elites pick these fights.

My explanation that World War One was initiated to distract the people from socialism is of course incomplete. Different decisions were taken for different reasons by the closed circles of elites in each country that participated in the war. Britain’s, for instance, went to war largely to cripple its rival Germany. The alliance of Russia and France, and later Britain, all boxed Germany in geographically, and being a latecomer to the imperial game, Germany’s expansion would need to be mainly local, rather than overseas. It attacked its neighbours. Certainly, German decision makers (Kaiser Wilhelm not least among them) share the blame for the start of the war; all the powers do. Then came the Treaty of Versailles, which was obviously victor’s justice and not true justice. No one benefited from this war, least of all the lower classes; and everyone paid the price again one generation later.

The incalculable chaos—the post WW1 wars across Europe and the Middle East—caused by three men at Versailles who thought they could reorder the world should not be ignored when considering causes of today’s problems. The point is not that they or their countries were less moral, or that a Hitler or Stalin victory over Europe would have been better for anyone. Rather, the problem is that they were given so much power.

Hitler came to power on the back of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and its devastating effects: hyperinflation in 1923 and deflation in 1929. (Not all historians will agree that Versailles led to those effects as much as the mismanagement of German governments of the time, but it was certainly an easy scapegoat. What the people can be led to believe always matters.) The closing of borders to trade after the start of the Great Depression also did nothing to help Germany, and in fact showed the Germans that, not only were they crippled by the punishments inflicted by foreign powers, but they were being left in the lurch when trade might have saved their economy. 6m Germans were unemployed when Hitler took office. He found a smooth road to fascism.

People condemn Germany’s bombing of Britain, but what did the British expect? Hitler never wanted to fight Britain, but Britain attacked Germany first. Then they show their ignorance by not knowing or their double standards by not caring about the firebombing of German cities, which in cases such as Dresden were solely punitive and had no strategic value. No one entered the war or bombed anything to end the Holocaust, either. If they had, the British would have allowed more Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, and neither Canada nor the US would have turned away the almost 1000 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. Moreover, Hannah Arendt and other historians believed the Holocaust was an extension of the carelessness with which colonial bureaucrats signed orders for administrative slaughter of native peoples and the disdain they felt for them.

People say it was moral to defend Poland. But Poland’s government, just like Germany’s, was a racist dictatorship. (France was full of racism too; but I guess being a democracy it was more moral and thus the people deserved more help.) Then people say we should have attacked Germany in 1938 or before. But the only time Nazi Germany had invaded a country before the invasion of Poland was an intervention into Spain to take sides in the Spanish Civil War, and I think it is fair to say that anyone who approves of the NATO operation in Libya can understand that. When this kind of foreign military intervention results in suicide bombings, the whole religion of Islam is blamed and all Muslims look like terrorists, when the real culprit is staring us in the face. But attacking Germany was just and righteous, because they were different from us.

The US did not have to enter the war. Japan did not bomb Pearl Harbour so it could begin a takeover of the continental US. It did so to change the equation, to do something about the sanctions on Japan that were making it impossible for Japan to continue to subjugate China. FDR baited Hitler into declaring war on the US, as Hitler did not want war with the US either. A major overreaction ensued in the US, and FDR had his mandate for war.

Britain was not particularly moral and freedom-loving. It controlled the world’s largest empire and held down indigenous people by force. The scorched earth campaign in South Africa (where the concentration camp was invented), the Amritsar Massacre (not the only massacre in British India, just the most recent) and the killing of thousands of Iraqis in 1920 (in which everyone’s hero Winston Churchill played a major role) were not only immoral; they provided an example the new imperialists could profitably emulate. Territorial expansion and empire were rational. With policies that contributed the Great Depression, the great powers closed their borders to foreign goods; and as Frederic Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” In the absence of free trade, empires like Britain’s and Russia’s afforded enormous benefits. Countries like Japan that had did not have enough natural resources for industrialisation, and Germany, hobbled by the 1919 borders, saw empires as a great way to get what they needed to grow. Hitler mentioned natural resources that Germany did not have in his writing as chancellor.

(That said, a look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.)

The supposed paragons of democracy (the US, Britain, Canada, etc.) had given women the vote barely 20 years earlier (around the same time as Germany). The US was certainly no beacon of morality by WW2. As Albert Jay Nock wrote in 1939,

in order to keep down the great American sin of self-righteousness, every public presentation ought to draw the deadly parallel with the record of the American State. The German State is persecuting a minority, just as the American State did after 1776; the Italian State breaks into Ethiopia, just as the American State broke into Mexico; the Japanese State kills off the Manchurian tribes in wholesale lots, just as the American State did the Indian tribes; the British State practices large-scale carpetbaggery, like the American State after 1864; the imperialist French State massacres native civilians on their own soil, as the American State did in pursuit of its imperialistic policies in the Pacific, and so on.

And morality was obviously not a major consideration, or the moralisers (the British and US empires) would never have allied with Stalin. Unlike Hitler, Stalin had indeed killed many people—some 20m—and enslaved millions more in the gulags. It is no wonder many indigenous forces in Eastern Europe fought with the invading Germans against the Soviets, the side that had proven its barbarity against them. If the allies had become more moral after the war, they would have insisted on freedom for all people, instead of first attempting to occupy Iran, then escalating the war in Indochina against indigenous freedom fighters, followed by everything else that happened when the imperialists were allowed to go back to the work they preferred. Anyone who studies US foreign policy knows that during the Cold War, the US was responsible for coups, dictatorships, mass killings, wars, and various other crimes that suggest the allies’ winning of the war was not unequivocally good. World War Two had nothing to do with liberating anyone, and everything to do with eliminating a rival empire. The troops did not die to make us free; they died for nothing.

More importantly, the idea of taking out Hitler or the Nazi regime and imperial Japan worked all right in the medium term (notwithstanding the enormous costs in lives and wealth, the Cold War and the Soviet takeover of half of Europe), but simply tackling dictators and then replacing them does not strike the root of the problem. It is the same style of misguided policy that believes in combatting terrorism rather than ending the aggression and occupations that cause it.

The two real problems are, first, the existence of the means to build up a military in the first place, through government power to tax, conscript (or just pay security forces better than everyone else), disseminate propaganda, silence dissenters, and so on; and second, the unquestioning following of authority. If Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al. had not had access to the levers of the state, or if more people had defied them, they would just have been scheming loudmouths at town hall meetings. If we were to eliminate some dictatorship, if it were somehow an easy task, I would suggest building things up from the bottom, perhaps training them in basic security while letting the people figure out their own solutions, instead of imposing a new government on them. I do not believe it would be necessary to do many things on a national level when they could be done locally or regionally, across borders. You do not need the government to build highways or railroads, for example, when there are corporations all around the world that could compete for it.

Either way, World War Two has become a kind of fetish in anglophone culture. Men love to watch the heroic allies duke it out with the evil Nazis and Japanese. We are so proud of ourselves that we say things like “you would all be dead now if not for our boys”, which is, to say the least, a counterfactual that defies credulity. (There is no doubt that many amateur history buffs will be able to pick meat off the bones of my arguments on the causes of the World Wars, which evinces my point.) Hitler has become almost a cartoonish image of evil. Because of our uncomfortable relationship with fact, it is easy to manipulate the masses into believing that the next Hitler is right around the corner. Saddam Hussein, for instance, was compared to Hitler before both the 1991 and 2003 wars against him. We HAVE to eliminate him: he is Hitler!

The myths surrounding previous wars contribute to the next war. The goodness of the Good Gulf War (1991), for example, has been crushed under the evidence. I remember as a kid watching American tv during that time, listening to everyone shout about how bad Saddam was and how we needed to invade Iraq. It made sense to me and my simple mind. What did they say? One thing they said was that Saddam’s troops were ready to invade Saudi Arabia, our good friend, then entered Kuwait and threw babies out of incubators. That turned out to be a lie. No one realised until it was too late, and the public had already given the politicians the go-ahead to invade. And it was just one of the pieces in the propaganda puzzle; and we do not need every piece in place to approve of the war. But even though some of the lies had been exposed, all the public could remember on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom from a decade earlier was that Saddam was the bad guy.

The stated rationale for intervening in Iraq both times was that Saddam was evil. But when we declare war on anyone in a country, we are declaring war on that country. Individual countries are neither moral nor immoral. They contain mostly innocent people. When we declare war on a country, we are mostly declaring war on innocent people.

Do we go to war for freedom? Whose freedom, exactly? Certainly not the freedom of those in the country starting the war. Wars tend to produce “emergency” laws that jail people for dissent, muzzle the media, censor unfavourable stories and demonise anyone voicing an opposing opinion. Taxes usually go up (except in the case of Iraqi Freedom, when they went down, creating an enormous hole in the budget that has only deepened). When the war is over, the newly-enlarged and emboldened government, with its taste for higher tax rates and greater control of its people, is less accountable than ever. Is that what we should “thank a vet” for?

We do not fight for others’ freedom, either. Iraq is not, contrary to what you might believe, a “free” country. Predictably, the new regime has become more repressive, authoritarian and corrupt. Those who believe that, whether or not the war was justified, at least Iraqis have democracy, are not only misguided with regard to the value of democracy but to what is happening on the ground in Iraq. (See here, here and here.) Furthermore, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of people who have died and the millions who have been displaced in Iraq since the invasion of 2003, cancer rates and birth defects are exploding. (The Vietnamese might have been able to predict this turn of events.) War has long-term environmental effects that are themselves another reason why only the ignorant would declare war on a country in order to save it. (Find more on the causes of war in part 4 of this series.)

Contrary to common perception, democracy does not make war less likely or less dangerous. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a democratic decision, approved of by a majority of Americans. It was enabled by government fearmongering propaganda, falsified and politicised intelligence and media outlets that did not research government lies. And if you believe we just need to reform government so that it stops lying, you do not understand government very well. (I will continue to use the term Operation Iraqi Freedom to refer to this war. The term is such a distortion of the intended and eventual effects of the war that it reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who made the war happen.) Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day bloodbath in Gaza of 2008-9, was a democratic decision, with over 90% of Jewish Israelis approving. Democracy does not lead to peace; in fact, as Jack Levy (1988) has argued, democracies will often adopt a crusading spirit, attempting to rid the world of evils like terrorism and dictatorship. Democratic governments sometimes come under pressure from their people to start or continue a war in order to stay in power.  Governments repeatedly lie and cheat their citizens into supporting wars that do not benefit anyone but a few elites, and have done so for thousands of years.

Whether intended or not, a major outcome of war is the expansion of government power. The American Civil War introduced the draft, which is akin to slavery, censorship, the suspension of habeas corpus and thus perhaps the first major violation of the Bill of Rights (but not the last) and the placing of state power in the hands of the federal government. World War One brought back the draft, more censorship—criticise the war and you are in trouble—deportations and spying. World War Two conscripted people by the millions, introduced food rationing, placed citizens under surveillance and interned over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The War on Drugs has chipped away at the fourth and fifth amendments (which is why it is so convenient for the government to call it a war). The War on Terror introduced the Department of Homeland Security, enhanced pat-downs at the airport, the Patriot Act and Guantanmo Bay Prison. Eric Foner, professor at Columbia University and president of the American Historical Association, mocks the idea that somehow freedom loses a war. “It is hard to see how at any point in American history, whether it’s the Civil War, World War One, the Cold War or the War on Terror, it’s hard to see how these infringements on the right to dissent, infringements on basic civil liberties actually have any military value whatsoever. Does anybody think that Germany would have won World War One if Eugene Debs had been allowed to speak in the United States? Or is it really the case that we can’t allow people basic civil liberties, the right to a trial, the right to see the evidence against them, because otherwise Osama bin Laden is going to take over the world?” But a lie repeated often enough acquires the veneer of truth. In August 2011, 40% of Americans polled believed it was necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism. War takes away everyone’s freedom, money and lives, and only a few benefit.

Why Libya? Why now?

Many people have been asking, why intervene in Libya when there are other people who are struggling against their tyrannical governments who also need support? There is more than one answer. I do not purport to have them all–someone in my position could not, as we do not know what backroom deals have been arrived at, nor how and with whom, to approve this mission in the UN Security Council. (Where is Wikileaks when you need it?)

One reason is probably that Libya seems to be the only state whose resistance has a leadership structure states can deal with on their own terms, as distinct from an amorphous mass of protesters. France recognised the rebel group as Libya’s new government two weeks ago, and all other governments involved are under pressure to follow suit.

The idea of oil interests is of course also floated as a possibility. Libya’s daily oil production runs somewhere between that of Angola and Algeria, constituting about 2% of world supply. If the US, Canada and so on are perceived as entering Libya to steal its oil, their reputations worldwide will drop to levels of unpopularity that would impress the colonel himself. A larger share of 2% of the world’s oil is not enough to motivate the powerful states to take such a big risk. While of course Big Oil would like to get its tentacles on that oil, especially at today’s prices, I do not think oil alone would provide the political support this mission needs, nor explain why Libya is the target.

Here is why Libya is the target. What is the name of the guy killing people in Libya? Muammar Gaddafi, of course. What else do we know about him? He is a crazy dictator. What are the names of the bad guys in Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen? How many Americans, British, Canadians and French can name them? Never mind them; we have the epitome of evil to take care of. In the US and Canada in particular, people are raised on a diet of super heroes and super villains. The Joker, Cobra Commander, Megatron and Skeletor, the villains I grew up with, wanted nothing but power, and commanded bands of evil mercenaries to kill innocent people. Muammar, like Saddam, fits this image perfectly: a one-dimensional, insane and funny-dressing dictator, massacring innocent people.

Moreover, the Libyan diaspora has no love for Gaddafi, and has been demanding his downfall in all the countries in question. (See this protest in London, for instance; some 20 Libyans were even yelling anti-Gaddafi slogans on the steps of the BC parliament.) The voters generally accept or encourage the decapitation of Libya. Along with the acquiescence of the Arab League and the United Nations, these facts explain why an intervention in Libya is politically possible.

A better comparison might even be made with Slobodan Milošević, the Butcher of Belgrade, who became the target of the 1999 NATO mission to protect Kosovo from Serbia, and grant it independence. The invasion was by no means an unqualified success. Despite every measure taken to target military infrastructure and minimise civilian casualties (which, by law, is necessary in war), hundreds of non-combatants were killed. Innocent Libyans will die in this “no-fly zone”.

The violence in Libya seems to occupy far more news media space than Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. According to polls, Americans are watching news about Libya, approve (60-70%) of intervention and generally agree that the comic book villain Lord of Libya should be removed from power. (That said, Europeans are less enthusiastic.) Barack has stated he will not send in ground troops, which means none of the invading states will. The ideal for the intervening governments is a quick victory and end to the conflict, and quick elections to remake Libya in the image of the West. Foreign casualties will be minimal, as they were in Kosovo (after all, how are Gaddafi’s forces supposed to hit submarines launching cruise missiles?). The heads of state ordering this mission will look like heroes and their approval ratings will rise at home. (Always watch the election cycle–Canadians may soon be heading to the polls.) That is, until things go wrong.

In fact, I see little reason to expect that everything will go as planned. The governments involved in Libya have consistently shown they have no plan for the countries they send their militaries to, and that their ad hoc planning rarely results in progress. Humanitarian interventions require long-term campaigns involving nation-building at the bottom and state-building at the top. Publics in these countries, who need to approve of such controversial commitments if their states are going to see them through, have short attention spans and low tolerance of casualties. If the violence in Libya ends when Gaddafi’s regime falls, like in Kosovo, the country can begin to rebuild. If not, it will be Iraq all over again.

The Middle East’s 1789…or 1848

It is still far too early to know if the torrential protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Syria will lead to meaningful change. Democrats around the world are hopefully predicting that every country will soon become a democracy. However, where will democracy come from? Democratisation is usually a long and winding road, unless it happens by revolution; and if it happens by revolution, a period of undemocratic violence could reign, as in France in the 1790s, which could lead to the election of another strongman who will restore stability, and the cycle of violence would begin again. After over a decade of experiment as a republic, France crowned Napoleon emperor in 1804, and brought in King Louis XVIII in 1815. Nonetheless, there is always the prospect for real change as well: after all, France is today a vibrant democracy.

Most of the protesters in the Middle East seem not to be demanding democracy but jobs, equality and an end to corruption. Rather than demanding democracy, they are protesting dictatorship. Some regimes will placate protesters by doling out gifts in the form of job-creation programmes, the sacking of the most corrupt ministers, wealth redistribution and so on, which is what democracies do, but others will be swept away. The important question is not have the Ben Alis and Mubaraks gone, but what will replace them?

Many of the democracies in the world are merely electoral democracies. In other words, there are basic freedoms and basic choices as to who will govern, but not much popular control of the government. Most governments are only accountable at election time. Egypt is certainly not a democracy yet, as the army is still in charge, and it might take a long period of hard work if the people truly want to be free. I expect many of the Middle Eastern dictatorships under fire are no more fortunate than Mubarak, but each country’s prospects for democracy are on similarly unsure ground.

In 1848, the people of Europe protested in nearly every major city on the continent. The reactionary governments in charge at the time were, like those of today, unprepared and insensitive to their people’s problems until revolt broke out. France’s terrified King Louis Philippe abdicated, much like the two dictators (so far) who have left their posts in North Africa. King Charles Albert of Piedmont issued a moderate constitution to quell riots. But the military everywhere knew they had the power to repress the revolts if they wanted. Prague was bombarded during its riots, which ended in failure. In Paris, radical republican and socialist protesters were suppressed. Austria’s new constitution was rescinded 1851, two years after its inception. International wars took place. Possibilities for all these occurrences exist in the Middle East.

Historian Robert Wiener explained the initial successes of the revolutions as indicative not of the strength and unity of the protesters but of the weaknesses of the governments they opposed. The protesters were not leaders and did not offer real economic or social programmes. The same might be said for today’s movements. Alexis de Tocqueville feared the revolutions he witnessed on the streets of Paris, because of the violent class struggle they indicated; Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, welcomed them.

Historian GM Trevelyan believed that the revolutions of 1848, the Spring of Nations, failed, because on the surface, nothing changed. Yet, Hans Rothfels, another historian, said that, in fact, the revolutions had major effects: a leveling of inequalities, universal male suffrage, and the understanding throughout society that the people would no longer be held under the thumbs of absolute monarchies. A new generation of leaders took over after 1848. Today, we are witnessing (probably) successful popular uprisings that may or may not bring what the people want. We can take hope from one fact, however. The people of all these places have shown that they will not simply put up with anything anymore. Like in 1848, some things will change: formerly unresponsive governments will need to sit up and take notice, and foreign powers will benefit less by choosing sides and propping up corrupt regimes. For at least a generation to come, the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and probably everywhere else that is in turmoil right now, will speak of the time when they rose up against their masters, and they will do it again if pushed.