Now that Tripoli has fallen to the rebels and Qaddafi is on his way out, many see vindication for the decision to intervene in Libya. Whether the decision intervene in Libya was wise for western governments is up for debate, but it is unquestionably clear that thanks, at least in part, to western aerial power, Qaddafi’s reign will soon come to an end. Libyans will soon begin the arduous task of building a new nation and, in this way, the intervention was successful. Let’s celebrate the end of Qaddafi’s regime, but please stop calling the international action “a humanitarian intervention.”
Sure, according to UN resolution 1973 the intervention was nothing but humanitarian. There was no mention of regime change, loss of legitimacy, or support for the rebels. Rather it was littered with terms such as “humanitarian,” “protection of civilians,” and “human rights.” After the international airstrikes stopped Qaddafi’s forces short of Benghazi, though, the mission quickly shifted from humanitarian to political. The UN resolution authorized a No Fly Zone (NFZ), reiterated the arms embargo, and froze the assets of several Libyan leaders. Yet after Benghazi was “saved,” NATO went on the offensive, shifting from the enforcement of a NFZ to attacking Qaddafi positions on the ground. Indeed, Qaddafi’s compound was hit with 64 airstrikes before the Brother Leader fled.
As soon as western leaders decided that the goal of the intervention was to remove Qaddafi from power, it ceased to be humanitarian. Today, then, proponents of the intervention should be celebrating the success of the regime change operation and not the humanitarian venture. Yet the western intervention is still being camouflaged as a humanitarian mission by many. Take, for example, Fareed Zakaria in Time Magazine:
The Libyan intervention offers a new model for the West. It was a humanitarian mission with strategic interests as well–support for the Arab Spring and the new aspirations of the people of the Middle East.
The intervention in Libya was a strategic, political intervention with some collateral humanitarian consequences disguised as the reverse in order to maintain support. Support for the Arab Spring was an integral part of the decision to bomb Qaddafi out of Tripoli, but that is not a humanitarian goal. Naturally, it sounds better to describe the war as a humanitarian success – and the people of Libya are likely better off in the long run without Qaddafi running the country – but to continue to describe the mission as humanitarian is disingenuous and falls in line with Obama’s attempt to classify the intervention as “kinetic military action.” Yet even the White House, in its defense of the “kinetic military action,” dropped the humanitarian facade, noting that the goal of the intervention was to remove Qaddafi.
Let me be clear, after taking Tripoli the people of Libya have reason to celebrate, but it is doubtful that the rebels would have been able to succeed in removing Qaddafi if NATO had not allowed the intervention to evolve away from its humanitarian justification. NATO military actions went far beyond what was authorized by by UN 1973 and could be considered to be in breach of international law.
By continuing to call the intervention in Libya a humanitarian success, we are not accurately describing the reality of western goals or actions. Moreover, using the humanitarian misnomer to describe NATO’s war actually discredits other potential humanitarian actions. Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations notes that the slip away from the original humanitarian justifications of the Libyan intervention makes future humanitarian interventions less likely:
But what started under the pretext of a humanitarian intervention clearly became a “regime change” operation. That will make it much more difficult in the future to get the kind of Security Council backing that you had with Resolution 1973, because the argument will be that the United States and its allies basically gained UN support for humanitarian intervention but immediately used it to legitimize a regime change operation.
After the first week of the international intervention, there ceased to be anything humanitarian about it. Rebel control of Tripoli is in no way a humanitarian success or a vindication of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine; indeed, categorizing a regime change operation as a humanitarian intervention inhibits future, real humanitarian action. In the days after the fall of Qaddafi, let’s watch the rebels track down the Brother Leader and his sons, celebrate as Libyan embassies remove the green flag of the permanent revolution and even speculate about the clear advantages of the American strategy employed in Libya. But let’s call the western intervention what it was: nothing more than a successful regime change operation.
Photo from Round Tree