The Libyan Intervention in the Rear View Mirror edit

March 31, 2011

When we look back on the Libyan intervention, will we think of it as another Rwanda, another Somalia, or something else entirely? ‘Rwanda’ reminds us of the shame of inaction, ‘Somalia’ reminds of the costs of poorly executed action, and ‘something else’ stands for the promise of doing the right thing.

What the UN has authorized in Libya represents a high-stakes political and military gamble for all sides, including the Libyan resistance, the international community, and the Qaddafi regime. The controversy it has generated outside of Libya is surprising considering its success in forestalling further humanitarian massacres, but is a reminder that while all social activity takes place in a historical context its meaning in that context is not self-evident; it must be argued and interpreted.

Debates over the military operation have addressed many issues, including its legality, its status as precedent, and its historical meaning, and not least its likely outcome.

The question of legality is easily settled. The UN Security Council has broad legal authority to impose itself in situations where there is a ‘breach of or threat to international peace and security,’ and it has stated explicitly in the past that mass humanitarian disasters can constitute such a threat, whether made by human or natural causes. The Resolution 1973 continues in this tradition, providing a legal mandate centered on the objective to protect innocent people in Libya from the depredations of the government. The no-fly zone is a step toward this broader goal and should not be taken to be the goal itself.

The operation is therefore unquestionably legal in international law. But is it wise? To consider this requires thinking about its likely outcomes and comparing them to realistic alternatives, including the alternative of doing nothing.

As Juan Cole has pointed out, the intervention does indeed set a precedent but it is not the precedent that many critics in the US complain about. The precedent is not legal, in the sense that the Security Council will be compelled to respond forcefully to the next popular uprising. No such thing exists. Instead, the precedent is political. It is, as Cole says, “if you rule a country and send tank brigades to murder large numbers of civilian dissidents, you will see your armor bombed to smithereens.” And setting a precedent of this kind distinguishes this intervention from the sad catalog of recent-past mistakes, over-reactions, under-reactions, and missed opportunities.

Also unique is the breadth of regional support. This is powerful and should not be undervalued. Most important of course were the voices in the Libyan resistance itself, asking for outside military help to redress their imbalance relative to the government’s military hardware. The Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League then amplified those voices and signaled a broad regional consensus that Qaddafi’s regime had crossed into criminality. Many cynics, taught by a long history of the US siding with dictators and ‘stability’ against democratic movements, expected that no international help would come. But it did.

The moment of intervention came as Qaddafi’s forces were set to invade and likely massacre Benghazi, at the time the last big center of anti-Qaddafi power. The alternative to UN action on that day was quite probably a mass murder of Qaddafi’s political opponents on the following day. The intervention must therefore be judged against this alternative, a counterfactual which is now only hypothetical but at the time was very real.

The concept of ‘the international community’ is frequently derided on the grounds that it is either meaningless or a mask for the political interests of a particular state or group. This is often warranted, but on occasion the concept comes to life in a substantive way. Here we have one such case. This kind of action in support of a domestic democratic uprising facing certain massacre is what the ‘international community’ is for.

Thus, the proper historical referent is not Afghanistan in 2002 or Iraq in 2003. It is Rwanda in 1994 or Cambodia in 1976, both of which have entered our collective memory as moments where the quick arrival of outside resources might have saved many innocent lives.

The UN operation seeks to avoid the situation of Rwanda in 1994, when the evidence of imminent massacre was mostly ignored. There is some chance that in doing so it will repeat the ill-executed intervention into Somalia in 1993. International mobilizations for humanitarian rescue are not guaranteed to succeed, and indeed the historical record suggests that the grander the plans for humanitarianism the lower the chance of success. The risks of trying and failing in this instance are less dire than the likely outcome had the UN and others stayed on the sidelines.

The outcome of the war remains uncertain. The international assistance to the rebels adds to their capacity but does not take the place of the grassroots uprising that has mobilized the revolution. It should not and it cannot. Stalemate is among the possibilities (though the status quo ante is not -- Qaddafi cannot reclaim his position as the legally recognized ruler). In chess, the interpretation of stalemate has shifted over time: in Europe it was once considered a victory for the stalemating player, in Russia and India it was a victory for the stalemated, and now it is understood as a draw. In Libya, it would likely be considered a victory for Qaddafi. Some in the US seem fine with this outcome, among them Louis Farrakhan and Michelle Bachman, both of whom have suggested it is wrong to try to remove Qaddafi. It would be irresponsible to follow their advice. The most telling evidence is that they are contradicted by the very people in Libya who are bearing the risks and costs of rising against the dictator and who would have to live with him afterwards.