- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi’s forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi’s force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I’m pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president’s rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama’s advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers — whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors — but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
Obviously, one can argue that any substantial loss of life is worth preventing, and that the United States and NATO were justified in intervening even if the number of people at risk was fairly small. Reasonable people can disagree about what level of human suffering is required before intervention is warranted, but the ultimate decision will always depend on a weighing of anticipated costs and benefits. By offering the most extreme forecast of what might have happened had we not intervened, President Obama was trying to tip the scale and make the benefits of his action look as large as possible. That’s his prerogative, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept his assessment with our eyes closed.
And let’s not forget that there are costs here, and not just to the rebel forces that NATO seems to keep hitting by mistake. Military operations are not cheap, and we may have to do a lot more if regime change remains our objective. We may also be helping create a stalemate that will ultimately cost more Libyan lives than would have been lost in Benghazi, though there’s no way to know that yet. We don’t know how this operation will affect NATO’s cohesion going forward, or what other problems may get neglected because the U.S. government is partly distracted by events in an otherwise minor power. So if Obama and his team did inflate the magnitude of the humanitarian danger that a rebel defeat would have created, then the real benefits of the decision to intervene are more modest and the cost-benefit calculus tips back the other way.
Where I agree with Bosco is his concluding point about the inherent ambiguity of the entire term "humanitarian crisis" and the desirability of firmer criteria and evidentiary standards when launching preventive humanitarian action. But I doubt it is possible to devise meaningful and political binding rules to guide future decisions, because they will always be context-dependent (i.e., we’re more likely to act if we’re not bogged down elsewhere), and because presidential decisions are also likely to be shaped by idiosyncratic factors, such as which advisors currently have their ear. And as the case of French president Nicolas Sarkozy suggests, enthusiasm for intervention may reflect domestic political woes, foreign policy embarrassments, and other extraneous elements. So while it would be nice to have a clear standard for when to get in and when to stay out, my guess is that such decisions will remain haphazard.
In other words, I can’t tell you where or when the U.S. will intervene for humanitarian purposes. But as long as my "Five Reasons" remain intact, it’s a safe bet that we will, and more often than we should.