Hazardous Means

Libya & the ambiguity of humanitarian intervention

When Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi is finally deposed, the world may agree that “all’s well that ends well.” But first, some questions: Why did France and Britain lead the way? Why did the United States join the effort? How humanitarian is this humanitarian intervention? Is Qaddafi’s fitting end being achieved by doubtful means?

In February, when France and Britain announced support for the Libyan rebels, protecting their oil interests was an obvious reason, but there were others. The British could have been making amends for releasing the Libyan terrorist convicted of blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 in exchange for BP’s access to the country’s oil fields. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy was in serious need of better headlines after flubbing his response to the Tunisian uprising; he was also very taken with French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy’s passionate support for the rebels. And, oh yes—no one likes Qaddafi.

The United States, on the other hand, had little interest in Libya, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted firmly, by way of saying, “Let’s not.” Yet, following a UN vote calling for the protection of civilians, the United States joined the conflict. Over many weeks, economic sanctions, an arms embargo, and NATO bombings have degraded Qaddafi’s forces while the rebels have improved their fighting ability under the tutelage of French and British trainers.

Why exactly is the United States there? Begin with the two words that inspired UN resolution 1973: humanitarian intervention. The resolution, which calls for the protection of civilians and a no-fly zone, is the basis for NATO’s actions. It passed amid claims that Qaddafi would commit crimes against humanity. That danger seemed compelling given his record of terrorism along with reports that he threatened to hunt down the rebels like rats. Would those threats have been carried out?

The responsibility to protect is an emerging international norm. When a credible threat of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or mass murder comes along the natural reaction is to prevent it. Who wants to be responsible for another Rwanda? At the same time, the call to protect can cloak less honorable reasons to attack (want his oil; don’t like him).

Consider, too, the perverse way that humanitarian intervention can escalate a conflict. In contrast to Rwanda or Bosnia, where the deaths of hundreds of thousands were ignored, calls for humanitarian intervention in Libya required only the threats of a madman, the ardent pleas of the rebels, and the cooperation of the Arab League.

Has the intervention met its intended purpose, protecting civilians? Since it began, Qaddafi’s forces have targeted civilians and besieged cities by cutting electricity, water, and food supplies. Whole neighborhoods have been shelled and hospitals destroyed. NATO, though avoiding civilian targets, has killed some civilians along with a number of rebels. From ten to thirty thousand Libyans are reported to have died (the imprecision reflects the chaos). Given that the rebels would have been defeated and the insurrection ended without NATO, has the intervention made the conflict more brutal than it would have been with Qaddafi left in place?

We cannot know the answer to that, but the scenario underlines the moral hazard of humanitarian intervention. Moral hazard? We know about that from the 2008 financial meltdown, but its role in international affairs is no less important. Describing the phenomenon, Alan Kuperman writes that the responsibility to protect, “by raising expectations of diplomatic and military intervention…unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and increasing its likelihood of success.” Did this happen in Libya? Did the rebels (now the National Transitional Council), by appealing to the “responsibility to protect” and drawing in NATO forces, save their insurrection? Was the responsibility to protect legitimate grounds for the UN resolution? Or was it misused?

Or was it simply the common denominator on which all could agree—a basis on which the United States and the Arab League could participate? France and England, ready to go to war, needed the United States, the Arabs, and NATO. Why did President Barack Obama finally agree? Consider the following: (1) pressure from advisers who feared another Rwanda; (2) a quid pro quo for British and French support in Iraq and Afghanistan; (3) a promise to the Pentagon of “no boots on the ground” to quiet military objections; (4) an opportunity to support multilateralism in which the United States did not have to take the lead; (5) everyone hates Qaddafi.

Is it that hatred that gives the coalition its cohesion? Certainly many will say “good riddance” to Qaddafi. But how long before another heart-rending appeal comes from a struggling rebel force citing the responsibility to protect? How long before humanitarian intervention becomes another reasonable excuse to start a war and kill thousands of people?


Further reading“The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans,” [.pdf] International Studies Quarterly (March 2008) 

Bernard-Henri Lévy, who pressed French President Nicolas Sarkozy to lead the way into Libya, here makes the case for doing the same in Syria

Samantha Power, said to be among the advisers who pressed President Obama to join the war against Libya has a long history of lobbying for humanitarian intervention. Jacob Heilbrunn gives an account in The National Interest.

Related: A Just War in Libya? by David Cortright
Turmoil in the Middle East, by the Editors

Published in the 2011-06-17 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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