In the lead up to the decision to intervene in Libya, I was pretty skeptical. Without overstepping the UN mandate, it seemed as though there was little that the international community could do in order to protect the rebel movement. The intervention, by the end, was anything but humanitarian. It is true that foreign air support saved rebel troops in Benghazi when Qaddafi was on the verge of completely crushing the uprising. But since then, the international actions in Libya were unquestionably political in nature: i.e. regime change. Recognition of the TNC as the government of Libya by a number of western governments ran counter to protocol, western leaders sought to finance the TNC, and the no fly zone soon was transformed into support for the advancing rebel forces (NATO warplanes hit Qaddafi’s compound 64 times before rebel troops arrived on scene.)
Without a doubt, rebel control of Tripoli is a major blow to Qaddafi and may represent the end of the Brother Leader in Libya. Depending on what the goals of the international intervention were, it is easy to say that the intervention succeeded. Yet can we consider the fall of Tripoli (and, presumably, the imminent fall of Qaddafi) to be vindication for those that supported the intervention?
Issandr El Amrani certainly doesn’t think so:
Personally, as happy as I am about last night’s developments, I fear that the fall of Qadhafi is already being spun to sanctify the principle of humanitarian interventionism, which I am against, after its misuse in Iraq. The case might be made that the principle of Responsibility To Protect (R2P) will get a boost out of the Libya case, and perhaps the case can be made that no-fly zones have proven their effectiveness. NATO went further than that, though, and that troubles me — because that’s not what the citizens of NATO countries were told would happen, and it’s not what the UN sanctioned.
The usual blowhard neo-con commentators are now using this not only to defend the idea of humanitarian interventionism, but to bash Obama for not committing greater resources (and presumably more aggressive tactics) to NATO because it might have ended the civil war more quickly. That’s impossible to know, though, and to me remains as dubious as the argument that not intervening at all would have spared us six months of civil war and a Libya that might be destabilized in the long-term.
Daniel Luban concurs:
Has the apparent overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Tripoli vindicated NATO’s decision to back the rebels? Notwithstanding the flood of facile commentary claiming vindication over Libya war skeptics, it remains too early to tell. And although I myself was (very hesitantly) in favor of aiding the rebels in the days when Qaddafi’s forces were closing in on Benghazi, it’s worth remembering that many of the skeptics’ reasons for opposing the Libya campaign had little to do with the question of whether or not it would ultimately bring down Qaddafi.
The fact that the war helped put Obama’s seal of approval on the American practice of going to war surreptitiously, without congressional approval or public accountability — as well as the possibility that perceived success in Libya might make the U.S. more reckless in intervening in the future — are both potential pitfalls that have little to do with the outcome of action on the ground. And that’s before we even speculate about whether the rebels’ victory will prove to be conclusive, or what Libya’s next government will look like.
This is not to deny that the fall of Qaddafi’s regime is good news — it is. But we should be very cautious about drawing sweeping conclusions or claiming vindication at this early stage, particularly in light of the disasters that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.
Stephen Walt, working under the assumption that the goal of the intervention was humanitarian, warns to avoid calling the intervention a success too early:
The danger is that we will have another “Mission Accomplished” moment, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, President Obama, and their various pro-intervention advisors give each other a lot of high-fives, utter solemn words about having vindicated the new “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, and then turn to some new set of problems while Libya deteriorates. And as an anonymous “senior American military officer” told the New York Times: “The leaders I’ve talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will all play out.”
Neither do any of the rest of us. We can all hope that the worst doesn’t happen and that Libya’s new leaders exhibit Mandela-like wisdom and restraint. Nobody expects perfection, of course; I can live with the “I told you sos” from hawkish liberal interventionists if it all works out reasonably well. But it will be no small task to construct a workable government in Libya, given the dearth of effective institutions and the potential divisions among different social groups. And then there’s all that oil revenue to divide up, which tends to bring out peoples’ worse instincts.
The fall of Tripoli and Qaddafi is wonderful news for the Libyan people who have lived for 42 years under the dictators rule. However, there is no reason to believe that the violence is over as major challenges still exist for the country. Similarly, if the goal of the intervention was to limit civilian deaths – which, of course, was the original goal – there is no way to tell if the intervention was successful. Even after stepping in to stop Qaddafi in Benghazi, the international intervention likely prolonged the conflict and has, until now, allowed nearly 30,000 civilians to be killed. The killing of civilians will likely continue past the death/arrest of Qaddafi as the insecurity and competing interests of different groups/tribes/militias replace the national unity built upon an anti-Qaddafi sentiment.
If, however, the goal of the intervention was regime change – and not the Responsibility to Protect – there is no doubt that the international action was successful – regardless of what comes next.
Photo from AIPR