Competing Precedents Set in Libya

Will the US intervene elsewhere?

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


11 thoughts on “Competing Precedents Set in Libya

  1. And if there had been no NATO intervention and Gaddafi exacted his pound of flesh from Benghazi, would not comfort have been given to Basheer? I don’t see your support for disfunctional autocrats. The UN and NATO are credible counterbalances to abuse. Perhaps you believe that the arab people with less history of “democratic” institutions need a strong ruler to coordinate tribal interests. Forty years seems like a two generation jump on creating the institutions of self governance but those institutions seems to be absent.

    1. Carlos, Can you really look at the repression, murder, and violence in Syria and say that the intervention in Libya deterred Assad at all? Assad is killing Syrians left and right and you are arguing that the intervention acted as a deterrence? Really?

      As for the rest, why and how would you conclude that I support dictators? Because I didn’t support the intervention? I’m not sure I get your point here

  2. I think your friend is not looking at natural outcomes of a growing revolution. The initial mission was of the UN/US was to “protect the civilians”, but he fails to understand that the reason the people protested in the first place was for the sole purpose of a regime change. What’s a revolution without a regime change? The UN/US was essentially protecting the civilians from being squashed by Qaddafi so that they could continue to fight for a regime change, the regime being more democratic of course. You can’t really do one thing without the other. “Prolonging and expanding” (hyperboles, btw) were not premeditated decisions by the UN/US, but rather a consequence of Qaddafi’s unfettered resistance to the opposition.

    oh, btw. What’s up, Chris. Still fighting the fight, I see.

    1. Hey Mark, good to hear from you!

      Indeed the purpose of the revolution was regime change. There is no question there – but the purpose of the intervention was to protect civilians. Not, be sure, to protect civilian forces. These are very different concepts. The role of NATO – as mandated by the UN – was not to aid the revolution and to guarantee the success of the revolution. According to international law, as soon as civilians take up arms, they are no longer protected, meaning that it was not the job of NATO to protect the rebel forces, to provide intelligence for rebel forces, to do advance scouting for the rebel forces, or to clear out the Qaddafi fighters ahead of a rebel advance. All of these actions are aiding civilian forces – something that is not covered by the UN mandate.

      That being said, it is clear that the intervening forces wanted to overthrow Qaddafi. But there is an important difference between protecting civilians (ie non-combattants) and fighting alongside rebel forces.

  3. I agree with Mark when he says he says that the purpose of protest (at the level of Egypt, Libya,and Syria) is regime change.I was initially doubtful of the outcome of protest in Syria would be successful. However, time has exposed the ruthless commitment to suppression of the will of the Syrian people by a minority tyranny. The focus on the excesses of the Basheer government stands in high relief after the fall of Gaddafi and this is because of the fall of Gaddafi.
    Cheers, you know I like your blog as I comment often.

    1. Hey Carlos (or Mach?)

      My point is that the argument was that international intervention in Libya would scare other regime leaders into succumbing to the demands of the people. This just has not happened in Syria. It may have put the violence in Syria into focus, but Assad has not slowed his killing because the NATO forces entered Libya. Whats more, it has become pretty obvious that the NATO powers will not push to intervene in Syria after Libya. Norway pulled out of the intervention early, Denmark ran out of bombs, Turkey and Germany completely stayed out, Russia is now offering a resolution at the UN specifically not condemning the violence (a pretty clear sign that the Russians will not vote in favor of or abstain from a vote authorizing an intervention.)

      Thanks for the comments – I love hearing from you!

  4. It is human to want things to change the better as soon as possible and the spring and summer have shaken things up. Now comes the shakeout. My experience comes from the ’74 Portuguese revolution and know that for the next few years will continue to be years of turmoil, intrigue, and competition among external intelligence services and internal interests until some sort of (un)steady state is reached.
    I think a collateral benefit will be an acceleration of the Israel-Palestine peace process. A long lingering cancer in the middle East. I don’t know what the process outcome will be, but there whether more war or new accommodation, there are new eyes, an a new generation reforming the area. I am Carlos at “”

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