Stephen M. Walt

The intervention paradox

The intervention paradox

In an obvious example of "mission creep," France, Britain, and now Italy have decided to send military advisors to support the rebel army in Libya. While resolutely declaring the no ground troops will be sent, these NATO powers (and the United States), continue to move beyond the original limited purpose of the intervention and are openly seeking to unseat the Qadhafi regime completely.

This situation is a textbook illustration of what one might call the Intervention Paradox. Because there are no vital strategic interests at stake in the Libyan situation, outside leaders are reluctant to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation quickly. You don’t hear Obama, Sarkozy, or Cameron declaring that they are going to call up reserves, redeploy forces from other commitments, or launch a direct invasion of Libya itself. They know that that mission isn’t worth it, and that their own populations would quickly question the wisdom of such a massive operation.

Instead, intervening powers try to use as little force as possible, and seek to minimize their own casualties above all. After all, when there are no vital interests at stake, it is much harder to justify the loss of one’s own soldiers. So they rely on airpower, not boots on the ground.  They’ll send advisors and weapons, but not their own troops. But because the rebel army is a ramshackle operation, and because there are real limits to what NATO can achieve with airpower alone, this minimalist approach is more likely to produce a costly stalemate in which more Libyans die. Even if it eventually succeeds, going in small prolongs the fighting and does more damage to the people we are supposedly helping.

The other option, of course, is to use overwhelming force from the very beginning. Qaddafi’s loyal forces might be effective against a poorly-trained rebel army, but they would be no match for a sizeable NATO force. But this isn’t really the answer either, even if we had such forces readily available (and remember, the United States is already bogged down in other places). For one thing, doing it this way is a lot more expensive, and you’re likely to lose some of your own people along the way. And once you’ve ousted the regime you own the country, and trying to put a society like Libya back together again would not be easy or cheap (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan). Given the divisions that are already apparent among the rebels themselves, and the absence of well-functioning social and political institutions, a post-Qaddafi Libya is likely to be a real headache. And there’s always the risk that an insurgency will spring up, further inflating the costs.

Hence the paradox: if you go in light you get a protracted stalemate; if you go in big you end up with a costly quagmire. Under these circumstances you can understand why the intervening powers are tiptoeing their way in, but as noted above, that merely increases the danger that the civil war drags on.

There is a third option, however: great powers could be a lot more careful about where and when they used military power to try to determine who gets to run some foreign country. But that’s an option that U.S. leaders seem to have forgotten.