1 September 2011
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. (…) 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. (…) 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. (…)
2. Is Security Council approval necessary? (…)
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. (…)
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. (…)
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