Sunday, April 10, 2011

Xenophobia to the Rescue?

When one develops a set of lenses to see the world, it is hard to see the world without those lenses.  So, Bill Ayres and I wrote a book that argued xenophobia (fear/intolerance of "others") inhibits the quest for more and more territory as it would be the equivalent of a large wave of immigration.   As a result, I now see xenophobia wherever I look, including the Libya situation.  That Italy and France are now teaming up to sweep the Med of refugees from the various North African conflicts (mostly Tunisia and Libya these days) is hardly a surprise to me. 

When studying the Yugoslav conflicts, I came to the conclusion that some of the early stands were taken by those who wanted to prevent/reverse the flow of refugees, including Germany's recognition of Slovenia and Croatia and the European willingness to buy into partition of Bosnia  The basic idea is this: end the conflict no matter how it affects larger principles/precedents so that the unwanted refugees go home.

So, when it comes to Libya itself and the role played by France, it might be the case that Sarkozy has pushed ahead of the rest because of the desire to avoid another wave of immigration--that xenophobia is pushing intervention.  One of my tweets on this provoked a conversation about this idea--why we should care and whether this is a good thing.

First, we should care because it is easy to consider either selfish concerns like xenophobia pushing countries into intervention in Libya's conflict, and it is also easy to think that it might be countries finally buying into Responsibility to Protect.  We need to know which one (if only one) really matters here as that will tell us much about the future--what will be the next conflicts that engage outsiders like this or not.  My money would be on the former and not the latter, in large part because R2P can apply everywhere so it has limited ability to explain selectivity/discrimination.  Why apply R2P to Libya and not Bahrain or Syria? I would argue, that among many considerations, for the Europeans only the former poses a significant threat of refugees.

Second, the question remains whether intervention motivated by xenophobia is a good thing.  Excellent question (H/T to blencowe).  Sweeping the seas to push back the refugees or kicking them towards the rest of Europe is not such a friendly thing to do.  Moreover, such motivations may lead to interventions that are half-hearted at best.  Sure, the French were quick to act, striking tanks in Libya even before the campaign to take out the air defenses began.  But xenophobia's inherent selfishness means that no one is willing to commit to putting significant troops on the ground (just like another half xeno-motivated campaign--Kosovo), which means that the effort may do just enough to keep the conflict going rather than give the rebels a real chance to defeat Qaddafi.  It is too soon to evaluate the Libyan effort (we don't know the outcome), but it is not looking good.  It may be that xeno-intervention might be a particularly bad form of outside interference because it produces slow train wrecks rather than fast ones.  What do the readers think?

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