French intellectuals debate intervention

Published on 29 March 2011 at 13:41

Allied intervention in Libya has sparked a war of words in France, the first country to conduct air strikes which has also played a major role in the development of the concept of "humanitarian intervention." In response to the position adopted by the heavily mediatised philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who, Paris weekly Marianne claims, convinced Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene and "inspired the French diplomatic line", several intellectuals have drawn attention to the limitations of military involvement, among them Rony Brauman. The former president of Doctors Without Borders and humanitarian intervention specialist had this to say in an interview with Libération:

"I still do not believe that aerial bombardment can establish a democracy or ‘pacify’ a country. The examples of Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Ivory Coast should remind us of the harsh realities of war and its highly unpredictable nature. In practical terms, the logic of ‘protecting civilians’ means ousting Gaddafi and replacing him with a local Hamid Karzai, or dividing the country by freezing the conflict. The problem is that we will be unable to cope with the consequences of either of these scenarios."

"The record of interventions by international forces shows that we do not have the resources to decide on what is good or bad for other countries, and the cure is worse than the disease. When force is not sufficient to obtain a desired outcome in a situation that could go either way, we should avoid using it and avoid being beguiled by dreams of a ‘just war’.”

Elsewhere in the columns of Libération, Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov also contests the notion of a just war:

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"There is no such thing as a ‘clean’ or ‘just’ war, although, in some cases war is inevitable, like the Second World War conducted by the allies; but this is not the case today. Massacres committed in the name of democracy are as tragic as those carried out in the name of God, Allah, the Guide or the Party: they both lead to the same disastrous consequences."

A few days later, the elder statesman of French journalism and Nouvel Observateur columnist Jean Danie responded to Todorov's remarks:

"Attacking the notion of a just war amounts to little more than flogging a dead horse. But I would nonetheless like to add my two cents with a quote from Camus: ‘When the victim of oppression takes arms in the name of justice, he is putting a foot over the line that separates him from injustice'."

"Although I say so with a heavy heart, I nonetheless have to insist, yes we had to stop Gaddafi from taking Benghazi, and yes we have to help the rebels to free themselves from his dictatorial rule."

In Le Monde, Alain Frachon defends a middle-ground position adopted by those who "claim that such actions cannot be decided on principle, but only on a case by case basis. The situation in Libya was sufficient justification for limited intervention." Democracy cannot be exported "with bombing raids," but does "that mean that there can never be any external intervention to protect a population from the tyranny of its government?"

"Those who argue that the precedents of Iraq and Afghanistan show this is the case should also consider the long list of tragedies that have resulted from non-intervention. This type of intervention is much like humanitarian aid initiatives: just because we are unable to intervene everywhere does not mean that we should never take action."

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern

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