Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thresholds and Definitions: Civil War or What?

"With escalating hostilities bringing Libya closer to civil war, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces struck back at his opponents on three fronts, with special forces, regular army troops and, rebels said, fighter jets."NYT
If this is not a civil war already, what is it?  Well, this is actually a pretty important distinction in the scholarly work on political violence.  It could be just a massacre or mass killing.  The difference in the datasets is that a civil war is a conflict within a state where there are more than 1000 battle deaths AND the weaker side is responsible for at least five percent of the casualties.  The idea is that there is something distinct between a government killing its people and a war between groups for control of the state.  I am sure the NYT folks were not thinking carefully about coding decisions, but from the coder's point of view, the question is: have the regime's opponents been fighting back hard enough to inflict serious casualties. 

Perhaps that is not the right question to ask, but the larger issue is still unsettled: whether this is a mass killing in progress or something else.  It does not take the opposition winning to call this event a civil war, just that they are fighting back.

Lots of folks saying Qaddafi is going to be gone soon or later.  Well, that is true of Fidel Castro or Dan Snyder, too, but there is nothing inevitable about regime change.  And as the other cases in the region remind us, replacing one guy is not equal to a social revolution.  It can be merely a coup.  Too soon to tell what is going to happen here, as repression sometimes works.  Civil wars can go on for years, as well.  I would still bet on Qaddafi losing power, but we, the public/mass media, have gotten way too impatient.  Politics is not like the world of Harry Potter--we cannot simply wave wands and make things change (oh, and it took four years for Harry to defeat the resurrected Voldemort, sorry for the spoiler). 

The US did not jump on this because the administration was more worried about the Americans there than the Libyans.  That might sound ruthless, but the last time I checked, the American government was elected by Americans.  Plus it takes a while to get the assets into theater and get the diplomacy straight.  No aircraft carriers in the Med (I think) means that the options have been limited. 

One last note:  The Russians seem likely to oppose a UN resolution on a no-fly zone:
But as Western powers debate the possible imposition of a so-called no-fly zone — similar to those enforced in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein — Russia ruled out the idea on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported from Geneva, quoting Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov as saying the proposal was “superfluous.”
Which reminds me of my favorite taunt of Canadian students:  the UN Security Council as a source of legitimacy when votes on human rights issues always bump up against the Russian and Chinese vetoes (and the occasional American one). 

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