Terms of Engagement

Stepping In

Libya doesn't meet any of the criteria for a humanitarian intervention. We should do it anyway.


In September 1999, in the aftermath of the brutal ethnic cleansing that Serbian forces had perpetrated on the civilian population of Kosovo, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the General Assembly on the subject of humanitarian intervention. The struggle over the appropriate response to the atrocities, Annan said, had “revealed the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights — wherever they may take place — should not be allowed to stand.” Annan’s speech was greeted rapturously in the West — but not in the developing world. Answering Annan in the General Assembly, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria said bluntly that “interference in internal affairs may take place only with the consent of the state in question.”

The debate over intervention has gone around and around the same circle ever since. Western leaders and Western thinkers — including Annan, whose views were shaped far more by decades of international service than by his boyhood in Ghana — have argued for the moral imperative of intervention in various forms to prevent or stop atrocities. The ex-colonial countries of the developing world, meanwhile, have invoked the sanctity of state sovereignty. The universal adoption in 2005 of the principle of “the responsibility to protect” has blunted that divide somewhat by shifting the emphasis from the right of outsiders to intervene to the obligation of all states to prevent atrocities. But the debates over action in Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere were dominated by the same threadbare claims of sovereignty. Effective action was impossible so long as the neighbors insisted on protecting the abusive tyrant.

Until now. In the debate over intervention in Libya, Russian diplomats have contented themselves with the usual boilerplate on sovereignty, but Arab states, remarkably, have not. The same Arab leaders who protect murderous despots like Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have called on the West to take forceful action to oust Libya’s leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. In recent days, the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the leaders of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, have called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. Soon after Qaddafi began his attacks on unarmed civilians, the Qatari foreign ministry, which maintains equable relations with virtually all parties to Middle East conflicts, issued a statement criticizing “the silence of the international community over the bloody events in Libya.”

Of course, the fact that Libya’s neighbors are calling for a no-fly zone doesn’t, by itself, make it a good idea. After all, they’re not proposing to do anything but vote on it; the actual work would most likely have to be done by the United States and NATO, which in practice means the United States, which has the air assets in the region. And Russia or China could still block Security Council authorization for further action. But in this case, the legitimacy of Arab bodies counts for much more than the council’s authorization. Qaddafi will, of course, try to portray himself as the victim of a Western crusade. That would be a lot harder if both Libya’s rebels and Arab leaders publicly call for the action, and stand by it (which is, of course, far from a certainty). Arab endorsement removes the single greatest political obstacle to action.

So should NATO oblige Libya’s outraged neighbors? Quite apart from the stupendous tactical difficulties that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has raised, and which opponents of a no-fly zone have been happy to repeat — and which strike me as the kind of military hyperbole Colin Powell deployed to argue against intervention in Bosnia in 1993 — a no-fly zone may be the wrong solution to the Libyan crisis. Although Qaddafi’s forces have made increasingly effective use of airpower, they would still enjoy a decisive military advantage over the rebels without it. U.S. pilots could find themselves in the sickening position of watching helplessly while Libyan ground forces pulverize their adversaries — as U.S. forces did over southern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

There is no point in establishing a no-fly zone unless both the West and Arab leaders are prepared to take the next step. This would be the kind of airstrikes that finally brought Slobodan Milosevic to heel in 1995: strikes against troop concentrations, bunkers, air-defense systems, and the like. This would be an outright act of war, though one that did not put foreign boots on Libyan soil. The goal, of course, would not be to induce Qaddafi to come to the negotiating table — a Hitler-like Götterdämmerung is much more likely — but to damage and demoralize his forces and thus tip the scales between the government and the rebels. That might not take long, but of course military planners have to think about worst-case scenarios. The rebels are very disorganized, and Qaddafi and his men are very desperate. And according to a recent New York Times report, Qaddafi has enough cash to keep paying his militias for a long time to come.

So is it worth doing? If a Western-led intervention had the full support of neighbors and if it had a reasonable chance of operational success, would it constitute a proper use of U.S. military resources? The question of who rules this desert state is not, after all, a matter of U.S. national security. And though Qaddafi has plainly committed terrible atrocities, they don’t begin to compare with those perpetrated by Bashir or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, or by the factions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So neither the strategic nor the humanitarian case for action is overwhelming. And to be effective, that action would require a serious commitment of military force. So again, why do it?

Because it would be the right thing, and because it would be good for the United States. It would be the right thing because U.S. and NATO force could stop a ruthless tyrant from killing his own people and bring his monstrous rule to an end. Western intervention in the Congo wouldn’t have solved the problem, while military action in Darfur might well have provoked a massive backlash in the Islamic world. But Libya is a case where force could work and where it will be deployed only after non-coercive methods have proved unavailing, as the doctrine of the responsibility to protect requires. And it would redound to America’s benefit because the United States would be placing its military power at the disposal of the Arab world in order to liberate Arab peoples.

Of course, absolutely everything about such a plan could go wrong. The Arab League could change its mind once the rubble began to fly; an American plane could get shot down; missiles could go awry and kill civilians; a rebel victory could throw Libya into chaos, or sharia, or back into charismatic authoritarianism. Or surgical strikes, like a no-fly zone, could prove unavailaing. What then? A full-scale intervention? (Answer: It’s a moot point, because the neighbors would never approve it.) And since any of these things could happen, the dictates of prudence might argue that U.S. policymakers take a pass at the unprecedented invitation to act.

White House officials, of course, are hoping that the rebels will win on their own. So is everyone. But if the rebels keep floundering, as seems increasingly likely, President Barack Obama will have to choose either to act or to forego action. We have learned that his idealism is even more tempered by caution — by prudence — than we had initially thought. It’s very hard to predict which way he’ll go. I know which I would prefer.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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