For the last few months, I have been in general agreement with much of what Daniel Larison has said about the intervention in Libya: I don’t see how intervening in Libya was in the American interest (and I do not buy the argument that it acted as a deterrent to other autocratic regimes) and I am annoyed by those claiming that the fall of Qaddafi represents any sort of vindication – of the decision to intervene or of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine that was used to justify foreign involvement. In general, I have been picking up most of what Larison is setting down. Yet I have to call BS on this:
The Libyan war set the bar for future military action very low, and the direct costs were not very great, which means that the U.S. will likely find itself engaged in more interventions in the coming years.
To be sure, the intervention in Libya set the bar very low and there are certainly going to be conflicts that surpass that low requirement; just look at Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Cote d’Ivoire, for example. But the United States is not going to be engaging to many more interventions just because the bar was set lower.
There are many question marks about the decision to intervene, but once that decision was made, it was clear that the Obama administration was unlikely to repeat some of the major blunders of the Bush administration in Iraq. As Fareed Zakaria writes, the decision to intervene was dependent on being part of an international consensus, with support from regional actors and authorization from the United Nations:
In deciding whether to intervene, President Obama was clearly trying to avoid the mistakes of Iraq. He insisted on a set of conditions before he would involve the U.S. in the operation. First, there had to be a local opposition movement that was willing and able to wage war against the dictator. Any international action had to be requested by the locals. Second, given the nature of the Arab world, it was important to gain regional legitimacy and ensure that outside intervention in Libya was not denounced as another example of Western imperialism in Muslim lands. Even Arab countries were drawn into the coalition. Third, a broader, legal legitimacy was sought through the U.N. And finally, European allies who were pressing for intervention were put on notice that the operation would have to be genuinely multilateral, with them bearing significant costs.
The precautions taken by the Obama administration to ensure that the intervention was not seen as American, or even western imperialism, were incredibly important in receiving a sense of legitimacy from the international community. Without that international legitimacy, it is highly unlikely that the White House would have agreed to intervene. These precautions, though, are precisely the reason why the US will be unlikely to intervene in other countries anytime soon.
The international community agreed to legitimize a humanitarian intervention. Yet the Libyan adventure morphed away from its initial goal of protecting civilians to an offensive, regime change operation that may have possibly broken international laws by overstepping the limitations set by UN resolution 1973. Larison has been adamant about this mission creep, writing:
Starting their war in the name of protecting the civilian population, the intervening governments prolonged and expanded the ongoing civil war for the sake of achieving regime change, and then they pretended that this wasn’t what they were doing. The Libyan civil war arguably didn’t qualify for military action under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, and the intervention exceeded its legal mandate months ago.
The blatant evolution of the intervention will inhibit future interventions. Countries that were unsupportive or unsure about intervening in Libya have seen how the NATO mission has moved away from what was agreed upon. Countries such as Germany and Turkey will be even more hesitant to agree to a NATO-led intervention and Security Council members – particularly Russia and China – will strongly resist another UN mandate out of fear that the next intervention will evolve in a similar fashion. In other words, the countries that are needed to provide the necessary international legitimacy that was enjoyed by NATO forces in Libya watched as the humanitarian justification was misused to legitimize a regime change operation.
The conditions that the White House required for intervention in Libya – specifically, international legitimization through the UN – have thus become much harder to obtain. The United States may have set a lower bar for what situations demand intervention, but this is off-set by the new requirements for international legitimacy. Russia and China are far less likely to abstain in UN resolutions authorizing international force and any number of NATO members will be more inclined to withdraw from unnecessary military ventures (out of fear of mission creep as well as financial woes.)
Thanks to the evolution of the intervention in Libya, the United States will have a tougher time finding partners for international action and will face more international skepticism surrounding any humanitarian action. Larison has been correct about nearly everything concerning the Libyan adventure, but he is overstepping here. The Obama White House has set a number of interesting and potentially harmful precedents over the last few months, but it is very unlikely that these will lead to many more unwanted interventions.
Photo from Tim Farnsworth