Would intervention in Libya poison the Arab revolution?

Peter Singer writes:

The situation in Libya [has become] a test of how seriously the international community takes the idea of a responsibility to protect people from their rulers. The idea is an old one, but its modern form is rooted in the tragic failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A subsequent UN inquiry concluded that as few as 2,500 properly trained military personnel could have prevented the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis.

Former US President Bill Clinton has said that the mistake he most regrets making during his presidency was his failure to push for intervention in Rwanda. Kofi Annan, who was then UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace-Keeping Operations, described the situation at the UN at the time as a “terrible and humiliating” paralysis.

When Annan became Secretary-General, he urged the development of principles that would indicate when it is justifiable for the international community to intervene to prevent gross violations of human rights. In response, Canada’s government established an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which recommended that military intervention could be justified, as an extraordinary measure, where large-scale loss of life is occurring or imminent, owing to deliberate state action or the state’s refusal or failure to act. These principles were endorsed by the UN General Assembly at its special World Summit in 2005 and discussed again in 2009, with an overwhelming majority of states supporting them.

The principle fits the situation in Libya today. Yet the Security Council resolution contains no mention of the possibility of military intervention – not even the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Gaddafi from using planes to attack protesters.

One body with a special concern to transform the idea of the responsibility to protect into a cause for action is the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, at the City University of New York. It has called on UN members to uphold their 2005 commitments and put the responsibility to protect into action in Libya. It urges consideration of a range of measures, several of which were covered by the Security Council resolution, but also including a no-fly zone.

In addition to arguing that the responsibility to protect can justify military intervention, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty recommended a set of precautionary principles. For example, military intervention should be a last resort, and the consequences of action should not be likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.

Whether these precautionary principles are satisfied in Libya requires expert judgment of the specifics of the situation. No one wants another drawn-out war like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Libya is not Iraq or Afghanistan – its population is only about one-fifth of either country’s, and there is a strong popular movement for a democratic form of government. Assuming that foreign military forces rapidly overwhelmed Gaddafi’s troops, they would soon be able to withdraw and leave the Libyan people to decide their own future.

Seumas Milne writes:

Those calling for western military action in Libya seem brazenly untroubled by the fact that throughout the Arab world, foreign intervention, occupation and support for dictatorship is regarded as central to the problems of the region. Inextricably tied up with the demand for democratic freedoms is a profound desire for independence and self-determination.

That is clear in reaction on the ground in Libya to the threat of outside intervention. As one of the rebel military leaders in Benghazi, General Ahmad Gatroni, said this week, the US should “take care of its own people, we can look after ourselves”.

No-fly zones, backed by some other opposition figures, would involve a military attack on Libya’s air defences and, judging from the Iraqi experience, be highly unlikely to halt regime helicopter or ground operations. They would risk expanding military conflict and strengthening Gaddafi’s hand by allowing the regime to burnish its anti-imperialist credentials. Military intervention wouldn’t just be a threat to Libya and its people, but to the ownership of what has been until now an entirely organic, homegrown democratic movement across the region.

Timothy Garton Ash writes:

A decade ago an independent international commission that elaborated on the idea of “responsibility to protect” spelled out six criteria for deciding whether military action is justified. Essentially a modernised version of centuries-old Catholic standards for “just war”, these criteria are: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. Bitter experience, from Kosovo to Afghanistan, has taught us that “reasonable prospects” (ie of success) may be the most difficult to judge and achieve.

Applying these criteria, I remain unconvinced that a no-fly zone over Libya is justified – at the time of writing. If it turns out that Gaddafi does still have a secret stock of chemical weapons, and can drop them from the sky, this judgment could change overnight. We should prepare contingency plans. But we have not yet exhausted all other avenues, including trying to pry Gaddafi’s cronies away from him by fair means and foul. A no-fly zone would be very difficult to enforce, and might not have anything more than a marginal impact on the ground.

Above all, any form of armed intervention by the west – and the US military says a no-fly zone would require initial bombing of Libyan radar and anti-aircraft facilities – would spoil the greatest pristine glory of these events, which is that they are all about brave men and women liberating themselves.

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4 thoughts on “Would intervention in Libya poison the Arab revolution?

  1. blowback

    which recommended that military intervention could be justified, as an extraordinary measure, where large-scale loss of life is occurring or imminent, owing to deliberate state action or the state’s refusal or failure to act

    But not when it is the US, NATO or Israeli miltary that is causing the large-scale loss of life through deliberate state action. Peter Singer is a hypocritical racist, though he might deny it!

    Assuming that foreign military forces rapidly overwhelmed Gaddafi’s troops, they would soon be able to withdraw and leave the Libyan people to decide their own future.

    Not if they include US, NATO or Israeli military! Haven’t these neocon-lites learnt anything from Iraq and Afghanistan.

    BTW, the Russian “police action” against Georgia in 2008 demonstrates perhaps how such interventions should be done.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    Gates is lying when he says a no-fly zone cannot be implemented without a wholesale air attack on Libya. Providing air cover for Free Libya in the east would not require any ground attacks, since the area is already in rebel hands.

    The mere denial of an air element in support of the less than invincible ground troops Qaddhafi has in action would cripple them in a very real way. We have seen many examples in the past ten years where the air element has been essential in stiffening the resolve of poorly motivated ground troops. The psychological effect of an attacking force seeing nothing but enemy air cover above them is not to be denied – even if the air cover does not support the defence actively.

    Timothy Garten Ash is a hypocrite. “If Qaddhafi has chemical weapons …” and drops them from the sky – that changes the issue of not supporting a no-fly zone. That actual happening, rather than its threat make all the difference to him. Doesn’t that seem a tad too late? What does he want to see, another Guernica before his sensibilities are assuaged?

    The actual air forces providing the no-fly zone should be politically acceptable to the Arab street, even if they are massively supported by Western elements on the ground and ‘out of area’ ie AWACs operations. However, I agree with Blowback, that the Russians are the only ones ever to have demonstrated the ability to make intervention work.

    It is essential that the Libyans gain their own freedom with the minimum of support from outside, but time is on Qaddhafi’s side, and he has the professional forces with the most modern equipment. A bit of equalizing is in order.

  3. Norman

    Perhaps the Russians then should enforce the no fly zone. Considering that the U.S. has been a partner to the falling leaders by supplying military equipment & munitions, the U.S. should keep its distance. Humanitarian support yes, military, no. Besides, going back to Vietnam, maybe even the Korean conflict, the U.S. really has screwed things up, instead of straightened them out. This should be the deciding moments when the U.S. should pull all its forces back to the confines of the U.S. itself. It should also be the moment when the country embarks on alternative energy sources. Regardless of the outcome of all these changes taking place, the thinking is still stuck in the last century.

  4. Renfro

    Singer is on the right track.

    Ash and Milne made my head explode….there should be a law against academics and reporters who were 5 and 7 years old during Vietnam and never step foot in the killing fields of Cambodia from having opinions about what not to do for people.

    And this?……”would spoil the greatest pristine glory of these events, which is that they are all about brave men and women liberating themselves.’ …..pristine and glorious?
    Ash needs his poetry books shoved up his you know what or to run into some large men in a dark alley if he thinks blood is so romantic.

    and this?….”

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