Matt Yglesias quotes an interesting passage from the new Jason Stearns book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. These last lines of the passage are the most important:
If we want to change the political dynamics in the country, we have above all to understand the conflict on its own terms. That starts with understanding how political power is managed.
Understanding conflicts on their own terms is something that outsiders tend to do badly. This is partly because of lack of knowledge, but it also partly because of an overemphasis on political categories that are most relevant to us that may not translate directly to political conflicts elsewhere. When outsiders decide that it matters to them which side prevails in the conflict, understanding becomes even more elusive. There are two responses that most interested outsiders, especially Westerners, gravitate toward when confronted with a foreign conflict. The first is the response Stearns criticizes here, which is to emphasize the sheer destructiveness, frequency of atrocities, and apparent futility of the conflict as a way of drawing attention to it as a humanitarian disaster. This approach doesn’t so much try to understand the conflict as to make people aware that it is happening and to express the view that it ought to be stopped somehow. Paradoxically, the greater the emphasis on the horrors and complexities of a conflict, the less likely outside governments are to want to become involved in any way.
The other response is one of arbitrary identification with one of the factions in the conflict. A conflict may be quite complicated, but to sell military intervention Western governments need to have a ready-made villain, and they must also (mis)represent whoever opposes the villain as people fighting for freedom rather than, say, power and territory. Many Westerners have a habit of adopting foreign political movements, and they define them in terms that make them seem familiar and sympathetic, and the members of those movements may want to encourage this perception to gain additional backing. This doubly obscures the nature of the movement, its goals, and the practical obstacles that stand between it and those goals. In the Libyan case, we have had a combination of the two responses.
The state-centered approach is not blind to the new popular internet-fueled movements and political realities in the Middle East, but it does question the likelihood of their success….It posits that the deciding factor in the early days of these Middle Eastern revolutions is not primarily the values being fought for, but violence—whether, and how decisively, it is used. The Libyans, accustomed to 40-odd years of brutal rule by Qaddafi, understood this all too well and chose to respond in kind. What may have started as a protest for democratic change is now very much a war over the state itself. The discussion is no longer about values, but over power, territory, and sovereignty.
According to Marusic, liberal interventionists “tragically misunderstand the nature of politics and war.” If I have his argument right, they misunderstand it because they do not fully take account of these factors of power, territory, and sovereignty in the conflicts into which they insist that the U.S. and other governments insert themselves. To use Stearns’ phrase, they don’t take fully account of how political power is managed in the country in question. It is little wonder then that the interventionist plan is to squeeze the Libyan regime until it spontaneously collapses without any explanation for how or why that would happen.