Humanitarian Inquisition

Does success in Libya prove that the "responsibility to protect" works, or has it opened a Pandora's box of shaky precedent?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The defeat of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime has produced a vigorous debate about the lessons of the intervention. Plenty of the commentary has focused on what the rebel victory means for U.S. President Barack Obama’s political future and his foreign-policy doctrine of "leading from behind," as well as the NATO alliance. But beyond the Beltway, in capitals all over the globe, the Libya experience is also an important test for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which has moved in and out of fashion during the past two decades. For those think that the international community should stop the depredations of violent regimes — by force if necessary — Libya is a milestone. But the intervention also poses some difficult questions.  

1. Is a slow victory better than a quick defeat?

Western-led intervention in Libya was designed to avert the defeat and feared massacre of regime opponents in the rebel capital of Benghazi. The massacre didn’t happen. (Whether it ever would have is a matter of significant debate, though revelations of massacres by government forces in Tripoli bolster the case.) Instead, intervention produced a grinding six-month conflict that still hasn’t fully ended. By most accounts, the conflict has taken at least 20,000 lives. At least one National Transitional Committee (NTC) commander estimates that 50,000 Libyans have died. If the sole criterion is whether lives were saved, the operation may have failed. It’s at least possible that a quick victory by Qaddafi — which appeared likely in February — would have resulted in fewer deaths than the prolonged conflict.

The notion of acquiescing to a brutal crackdown on humanitarian grounds may seem perverse. But humanitarians make that kind of calculation all the time, though not always explicitly. The scale of human suffering in North Korea, for instance, dwarfs that in Libya. Yet no serious observer calls for intervention there, because of the expected cost. In Libya, Western policymakers argued that the balance tilted in favor of action. But particularly if a humanitarian intervention will be limited to air support for local resistance, the expected toll of prolonged fighting must be factored into the calculus.

Unless, that is, the humanitarian calculus is not the most important one. Intervention can support all sorts of other values and goals, including self-determination and self-government. Supporting a rebel group with a just cause might be the right choice even if doing so produces a prolonged and bloody conflict. Taking those other objectives into account, however, requires a debate that goes well beyond a simple humanitarian calculus.

2. Is Security Council approval necessary?

Britain, France, and the United States made winning the U.N. Security Council’s approval for intervention in Libya a priority. A Russian or Chinese veto would have stopped the operation in its tracks, and Qaddafi today would likely be mopping up the remnants of a scattered opposition. That Libya’s fate was effectively in the hands of Moscow and Beijing is a reminder that humanitarianism, at least sanctioned by the United Nations, depends on power politics.

Advocates of an international "responsibility to protect" (R2P) were thrilled that the powerful Security Council appeared to be endorsing the doctrine. Their joy may have been premature. The council soon divided into different camps on the conduct of the campaign, with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) in particular roundly criticizing what they saw as NATO’s abuses of its authority.

Instead of cementing R2P into council practice, the Libya experience may have made future Security Council backing for humanitarian intervention less likely, at least in the medium term. Russia and China have been extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on Syria, in part because they don’t want to start down the road taken in Libya. And that means that the international community will likely be forced to grapple again with how R2P meshes with existing international law, which requires Security Council approval for uses of force other than self-defense.

3. Can you defend civilians without taking sides?

As the BRIC countries and other critics have pointed out repeatedly, NATO’s Libya action almost immediately became a regime-change operation, albeit a limited and halting one. In the midst of the campaign, NATO’s Libya triumvirate — French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Obama — made clear that Qaddafi’s defeat was essential. "It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power," they wrote in mid-April. NATO’s air power gradually wore down the regime’s military forces. Coalition aircraft targeted Qaddafi’s forces not only when they were engaged in attacks on civilians but when they were fighting armed rebels, transiting from one location to another, or simply idling in the desert. Western planes bombed the regime’s senior leadership and selectively enforced the U.N. arms embargo on Libya so as to permit a flow of weapons to the rebels. Outside forces had a mandate to protect civilians; instead, they effectively became the rebel air force, special operations wing, and intelligence service.

The divergence between the mission’s legal mandate and its methods drove some observers to distraction. But the duplicity was inevitable. Outsiders always struggle to police conflicts neutrally, and that difficult task becomes all but impossible from the air. Siding with the rebels was the only intervention strategy that made operational sense. The problem was not the strategy, but the inability of those intervening to honestly explain what they were doing. Because the Security Council never would have endorsed intervention on behalf of the rebels, intervening governments felt compelled to cast the entire operation in terms of neutral civilian protection.

This dynamic introduces a significant legitimacy problem for R2P. Non-Western observers are already wary of a doctrine that they believe easily slides into neocolonialism. The manifest partiality of the West’s Libya intervention — and its inability to speak clearly about what it was doing — will likely heighten those concerns.

4. Does limited involvement mean limited responsibility?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously proposed a "Pottery Barn rule" for intervention: You break a country, you own it. No one doubts that NATO’s intervention was critical to the success of the anti-regime forces. Six months of air support turned the tide. So does the Pottery Barn rule apply? Or does the fact that international military intervention came from on high mean that outsiders have a lesser obligation in a post-Qaddafi Libya? Western political leaders appear to believe so. NATO has passed responsibility for the post-conflict phase to the United Nations, though its members know well that lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers would not be capable of maintaining order if tribal or ethnic conflict broke out. (NTC leaders have said that they do not want U.N. peacekeepers in any case).

It’s not clear why the Western obligation to Libya should be reduced because they destroyed the Qaddafi regime from the air. Outsiders determined Libya’s political future no less obviously than the United States did in Iraq. The United States had a clear obligation to help restrain the violence that its invasion in Mesopotamia set in motion. The Western obligation won’t be any less if post-Qaddafi Libya descends into violence.

5. Are civilian lives the only ones that matter?

The rhetoric about protecting civilians has become so ubiquitous in recent years that it’s possible to forget that modern wars actually involve armed combatants — and that limiting their suffering and death is also an important goal. There’s relatively little sympathy for the mercenaries who populated Qaddafi’s army, and maybe that’s as it should be. But Qaddafi’s forces were not entirely mercenary; they also included plenty of conscripts, some reportedly as young as 15. Western hearts bleed for Libyan civilians but are unmoved when a Qaddafi conscript — who likely had no say in whether to fight — is incinerated in a tank. The doctrine of protecting civilians responds to a powerful moral impulse: that civilians have not chosen conflict and are not trained for it. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many of those compelled to fight for despotic regimes.

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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