The article below was published on April 3 in the Sunday Viewpoints section of the Buffalo News.
Among specialists on war and foreign policy, the US/NATO military intervention in what is clearly a civil war in Libya has been greeted with greater ambivalence than in any other international conflict in the modern era. Even those who are most knowledgable about what is happening in Libya are having a hard time making up their minds about whether they support Obama’s decision to take military action, especially since the purpose of the intervention—despite the administration’s denials--is not merely to rescue the rebels and innocent civilians from Quaddafi’s wrath, but to overthrow his atrocious dictatorship.
In a sense, this ambivalence is perfectly justified, perhaps even inevitable, because there are powerful arguments both for and against the intervention, and also because the range of outcomes and consequences of the intervention is so wide and, above all, unknowable.
Most foreign policy actions—especially those that involve the use of force—are designed with two purposes in mind: to serve and protect the U.S. national interest and to do the morally right thing, typically in that order of priority. The easy cases are those in which national security issues and morality line up on the same side: World War II would be the classic example. Libya, however, is a devilishly difficult case, for there are plausible scenarios in which the military intervention could work or could fail, both in moral and national interest terms. It depends on outcomes and consequences that no one—literally no one, not Obama or his critics—can possibly know.
Granting all the uncertainties, on balance I think the case for intervention is stronger than that of nonintervention. Let me state the major arguments against intervention, and then discuss why they fail to persuade:
*Morality or humanitarianism has nothing to do with it: it’s all about oil. A common fallacy among those who regard themselves as hardheaded “realists” is to dismiss the role of morality in foreign policy decisions and claim it is all about narrow interests, especially economic interests, and most especially, oil interests. Such cynicism, however, is itself a kind of naivite, a reductionism unequal to the complexity of war-and-peace issues.
In the Libyan case, the argument that it’s all about oil is particularly unpersuasive. First, only a very small amount of our imported oil comes from Libya, and in any case for many years Quaddafi has been a reliable supplier, both to us and to our NATO allies. Moreover, in recent years, Quaddafi has played a valuable intelligence-gathering role in the war against terrorism, especially al-Qaeda. So if narrow self-interests really explained the US intervention, we should be fighting to save Quaddafi, not to overthrow him. In short, there is every reason to believe that genuine moral concerns were an important component—probably the most important component—in explaining the administration’s decision to intervene in Libya.
*Insofar as the intervention is designed to get rid of Quaddafi, it violates international law because it goes beyond the UN mandate, which limited the purpose of the authorized intervention to that of protecting civilians. There are two problems with this argument. First, it is hard to see how the intervention could save the Libyan people from Quaddafi’s wrath—he has openly stated his murderous intentions—without getting rid of him. Suppose the US and NATO refused to go beyond a literal interpretation of the UN resolution and simply stopped the Libyan military advance, established a ceasefire—and then left? What would prevent Quaddafi, with his billions of dollars in oil wealth, from rebuilding his military forces and resuming a vendetta against his opponents?
Moreover, the latest UN resolution is not the sole source of international law. In fact, for a number of years both the UN and other international bodies have been steadily moving towards legitimizing (in both the moral and legal sense) international intervention against particularly brutal dictatorships. In particular, since 2005 UN bodies have formalized an international “right to protect” peoples from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” including by military action when all other methods fail. Quaddafi is not committing genocide or ethnic cleansing, as those terms are generally defined, but he has certainly committed war crimes, and if he had not been stopped, he clearly intended to commit even worse atrocities that might well have reached the level of crimes against humanity. Just prior to Obama’s decision, Quaddafi proclaimed: “We are coming tonight. We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”
*Humanitarian intervention is inconsistent, highly selective, and therefore morally hypocritical. There is no doubt that the United States, NATO, and the international community of states are highly selective in undertaking humanitarian military interventions. We intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, and now in Libya—but not in Rwanda, Sudan, the Congo, and in a number of other states where the atrocities or crimes against humanity were even worse.
Furthermore, only small or militarily weak states are vulnerable to humanitarian interventions: no one proposed military intervention against China because of its ruthless suppression of the Tibetan uprising, or against Russia because of its brutality in the Chechnyan revolution. Indeed, even in perhaps worse cases, like North Korea and Iran, no sane political leaders would invite a major war, possibly even a nuclear war, by carrying out a humanitarian intervention.
What about cases much closer in terms of risks and feasibility to that of Libya? Neither the Obama administration or NATO is disposed to intervene against the military autocracies of Bahrain and Yemen, which have used force to crush popular uprisings. Western military intervention would be even less likely should similar events occur in Saudi Arabia. The reasons are obvious: we have high national security stakes in the pro-Western monarchies of the region, who provide us with military bases, intelligence cooperation, and, yes, in the presently hypothetical case of Saudi Arabia, oil. In such cases, national interest considerations clearly trump moral concerns—as maybe they should.
What doesn’t follow, however, is that if you can’t or don’t want to intervene everywhere where human rights are being trampled, you shouldn’t intervene anywhere. Every once in a while—such as in the case of Libya—the issues of national security, morality, and practical feasibility line up on the side of intervention, and when they do, the charge of hypocrisy or illegitimate “selectivity” is not a persuasive argument in favor of nonintervention.
*We can’t know the consequences of the intervention, but war always brings unintended and unforeseen consequences. There is no doubt that the anti-intervention argument is strongest when it focuses on consequences rather than state motivations and intentions. In terms of consequences, there are indeed a number of troubling issues. First, what happens if the currently limited military operations are insufficient to get rid of Quaddafi? Do we escalate the war, expand the bombing, or introduce ground troops—which could lead to a number of bad consequences, not least of which is that they would probably increase Libyan civilian casualties rather than prevent them?
The history of previous initially limited interventions that failed to work, thus forcing an unpalatable choice between major escalation or the acceptance of defeat, is not reassuring: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan leap to mind. For now, the evidence is that most Libyans are prepared to accept the consequences of the US/NATO intervention—indeed, they are overjoyed with it—but whether that will continue if the war drags on or escalates is another matter.
A second argument is that wars to impose democracy from the outside fail far more often than they succeed: there have been a number of serious studies that have reached pessimistic conclusions about such wars. However, the relevance of these findings for the Libyan situation is questionable, at least if we think of the war not as intended to bring about democracy but to protect an even more basic human right, the right to life.
Consider, for example, the Rwandan example. In 1994 the US and the international community failed to intervene in Rwanda to prevent the Hutu genocide that slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, even though UN forces on the ground as well as outside experts believed that a small military intervention would have worked—Bill Clinton later said that his failure to intervene in Rwanda was the worst mistake of his administration. Suppose we had intervened and had prevented the genocide, but democracy later failed to take root in Rwanda? Would we then regard the humanitarian intervention that ended the mass slaughter as a failure, let alone a moral failure?
There is yet another possible--and certainly most serious-- unintended consequence of the Libyan intervention: Since no one proposes military intervention, for whatever reason, against states with nuclear weapons, the lessons of Libya for small states currently not possessing such weapons might be that they better get them as soon as possible. Indeed, as some analysts have pointed out, it is quite likely that Quaddafi today considers his greatest mistake was to have ended his nuclear program in 2003 in exchange for normalization of relations with the West.
If it should turn out to be the case that the Libyan intervention convinces a number of states that had previously declined to seek nuclear weapons to now do so, in retrospect the intervention would have been a mistake. But we can’t know that will be the outcome, both because regardless of the Libyan situation there are a number of factors militating against states trying to go nuclear and also, on the other hand, because there are a number of factors that may lead to further nuclear proliferation, even if there had been no Libyan intervention.
So, there are strong arguments both for and against the intervention and there are a number of possible outcomes, some of them desirable and some of them not. Consequently, the ultimate consequences of the Libyan intervention , both in moral and national interest terms, are quite unknowable. I’m afraid this leaves us little but gut feelings to go by: mine are that we simply could not stand by and do nothing when the Libyan rebels, and beyond them the ordinary Libyan people, were faced with imminent catastrophe at hands of a psychotic killer.
As in the past, in the future there are certain to be a internal state conflicts in which governments will kill and in other ways deny their people their basic human rights—and in most of them, we will do nothing effective, for practical reasons as well as reasons of state. Even so, it is hard to see why saving lives and protecting human rights in some countries is not better than protecting none. A more satisfactory resolution of these issues will have to await a radical change in the international state system—if not a transformation of human nature.