On Friday 26th April, the Oxford Union hosted another in the series of ‘Head to Head’ programmes, organised by and filmed for Al Jazeera, where this time interviewer Mehdi Hasan challenged one of the world’s most famous public intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Levy, on whether foreign military intervention could ever be justified,
One of the leaders of the ‘Nouveaux Philosophes’ movement in 1976, Levy has made contributions to many areas of philosophy. However, he has recently gained notoriety for his prominent and influential opinions regarding humanitarian intervention. As a man with a penchant for war zone tourism, Levy has trotted the globe in response to each new outbreak of conflict; ostensibly in order to attract public attention to the issue (and, arguably, to himself); each time proclaiming his solution to the crisis within a few weeks of arrival. That solution is frequently very similar – the West must intervene.
His advocacy for humanitarian intervention was particularly instrumental in Libya where he took a leading role in persuading President Sarkozy to pursue such a policy and supported his campaign to gain approval from the UN. Buoyed by his success, he now advocates for a similar policy in Syria. The interview, therefore, concentrated upon an evaluation of the intervention in Libya and arguments for and against an intervention in Syria; with Levy contending that intervention in Libya was both justified and successful; and intervention in Syria morally necessary.
Levy’s defence of humanitarian intervention was, fundamentally, that we have a duty to prevent atrocities; a noble goal, certainly. However, given that minimisation of human suffering is his aim, surprisingly little was offered by way of understanding how one should weigh the humanitarian cost of intervention against the cost of non-intervention. Levy admitted that interventions do, in themselves, have substantial costs and that one shouldn’t “introduce a medicine that was worse than the disease” but gave no metric as to how this calculation was to be enacted. The most he had to say on the subject was “we should go in with our eyes open and do our best,” hardly a fail-safe recipe for preventing catastrophe. He did however, state the conditions that (a) the West should be the agent of intervention and (b) that the consent of the population was essential for its success and legitimacy.
His defence of why the West is best placed to enact such intervention was unfortunately rather weak. According to Levy, the world is divided between democrats and non-democrats and it is far preferable for the democrats (e.g. the West) to intervene than that non-democrats (e.g. Saudi Arabia). It is unclear whether this division occurs at a national level, in which case campaigns to ‘export democracy’ to non-democratic nations are probably futile, or whether the division is at the individual level – in which case it is debatable that all leaders in the West can be said to be democratic crusaders, especially where other countries are concerned. Nonetheless, according to Levy, France is a nation of democrats and Saudi Arabia is not. Intervention cannot, therefore, be left to the Saudis.
While the point regarding the necessity of public support for intervention appears intrinsically persuasive, it was uncertain how such support is to be measured or indeed to what extent the support is informed. In bolstering his own position on Syria, Levy asserted that the majority of Syrians “wanted the West to intervene.” How he managed to conduct an opinion poll in the war-torn nation, or what exact course of action was favoured by the population, were deeply unclear, which makes one dubious as to the validity and extent of his claim. Moreover, history suggests that interventions are often popular prior to their enactment, and become increasingly less so as the costs of foreign interference begin to show. Evidence that Syrians who do support an intervention have a real understanding of the likely nature of such an intervention or its possible costs was certainly not demonstrated.
Those who engaged with Levy from the audience complained about the immorality of his selectivity of choices for intervention – for example ‘yes to Syria but no to Bahrain.’ This is a common criticism of intervention. It is not however, fair or logical. A pro-intervention stance is not immoral simply because it includes a practicality clause. If minimisation of suffering is the goal, the overall costs incurred by the intervention – including potential counter-interventions precipitated by Western interference – should also be weighed into the calculation.
The discussion as a whole, while throwing little new light on the overall debate on the morality, efficacy or legitimacy of intervention, did reflect the general confusion among the majority of people on the question of whether we should send our armies to prevent atrocities in other countries. Perhaps this is because we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe it is time to move on from the assertions that “we must do something” as promulgated by Levy and begin to question what it is we should do and how we should be doing it. The current model of intervention is one that minimises the cost to the intervener – a policy which often leads to increased costs for the population it seeks to help. Were those who claim to want to prevent atrocities to redesign their methods in such a way that would actually ensure that this was done, which would undoubtedly come at a greater cost to the intervener, we might be having a different and more productive debate.
The interview will be aired on Al Jazeera later this year. Tomorrow at 7.30pm the Union will hosting the last of this series of debates where Mehdi Hasan will be interviewing Tom Friedman on whether America is a force for good in the world.
Kate Brooks is an Oxford MPhil student in International Relations.