On April 8 I posted a blog entitled “An (Uneasy) Defense of the Libyan Intervention.” I argued that there were powerful arguments both for and against the US/NATO intervention in Libya, and that the range of outcomes and consequences were wide—actually, given the complexity of the issue, essentially unknowable. Even so, I concluded, on balance I thought the risks were worth running in order to save many thousands—in some estimate, hundreds of thousands—of Libyan opponents of Quaddafi from imminent slaughter. As I wrote, just prior to Obama’s decision, Quaddafi had proclaimed: “We are coming tonight. We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”
Ten weeks into the intervention, a tentative evaluation—one that remains mindful that the ultimate consequences could yet prove to be bad—suggests that the intervention is succeeding, and at a price that is not too high, either for the allies or the Libyan people. First, slowly but surely the rebels appear to be getting stronger and Quaddafi’s forces are being ground down, principally by the expanded air attacks by NATO. Given the level of their military, political, and moral commitment in Libya, the US and NATO simply can’t afford to let Quaddafi
win, and they have the means to prevent it, even if it means some further limited escalation of NATO attacks on military targets.
Second, there is increasing evidence that the intervention is strongly supported, and not only by the anti-Quaddafi military forces but by the great bulk of the Libyan population. There was a particularly dramatic story in the May 28 New York Times, "In the Capital of Rebel Libya, Shouts of Thanks to America and the West." (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/world/africa/29benghazi.html?ref=world)
The article has been criticized by some as too enthusiastic, but almost all the reports—at least, those that I have seen—have emphasized the extent of popular Libyan support for the intervention.
Skeptics have pointed out that in 2003 US forces in Iraq were also initially greeted with strong popular support, which very quickly dissipated. True enough. On the other hand, the U.S. forces that liberated France in WWII were joyfully received—and that joy did not diminish over time—even though the civilian casualties imposed by the fighting and the Allied bombing were many orders of magnitude greater than those inflicted in the Libyan intervention.
More generally, humanitarian interventions—that is, those genuinely motivated in part or predominantly by moral considerations, such as the Libyan intervention—will always produce some degree of civilian casualties, but if they are held to the minimum possible, as has been the case in Libya so far, there is no reason to expect that indigenous popular support for the foreign liberating forces must inevitably disappear.
To be sure, the situation could change if NATO military actions result in much greater civilian casualties than have so far been the case. This seems unlikely, however, for the U.S. and NATO are profoundly aware that their success, both in a moral and political sense, depends on minimal civilian casualties. There are indications that NATO will soon increase the intensity of its attacks on Quadaffi’s forces and military targets, but the accuracy of NATO’s military technology makes it unlikely that “collateral damage” will be unacceptably high.
In short, there are good reasons to expect that the ultimate cost in civilian casualties—not to mention freedom—will be much less than those that would have followed a Quaddafi victory.
Still, there continue to be good reasons for caution. First, as we have seen in Iraq and elsewhere, possibly even including Egypt, there are plenty of reasons to worry that revolutions against tyrants—whether or not supported by foreign forces—will not end with the establishment of true democracy. Indeed, in the early stages of the intervention, there were concerns that al-Qaeda extremists were playing an important role in the anti-Quaddafi revolution, and might emerge as the dominant force if the revolution succeeded.
However, in last month or so, those concerns apparently have greatly diminished—at least as judged by the absence of news reporting or informed analysis that continue to point to an al-Qaeda danger. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that a successful intervention will lead to democracy—but that argument misses the point. In Libya, at least, the purpose of foreign military intervention was far less to bring about democracy than to save innocent lives. That being the case, if some form of democracy should eventually emerge, that should be considered a bonus of success, not a requirement for it.
Second, it is evident that the purpose of the NATO intervention is no longer merely to save lives, but to get rid of Quaddafi—even though the UN mandate did not include regime change. Still, it is hard to see how the intervention could save the Libyan people from Quaddafi’s wrath if he had been allowed to remain in power. Suppose the US and NATO refused to go beyond a literal interpretation of the UN resolution and simply stopped Quaddafi's military advance, established a ceasefire, perhaps presided over a de facto partition of Libya—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?
If anything, the case for regime change has been strengthened since the beginning of the intervention, both because the extent of Quaddafi’s prior criminal depredations against his own people has become clearer and because of the evident widespread hatred of him by most Libyans. In general, regime change as a purpose of intervention in the internal affairs of other states is a bad idea—it certainly was in Iraq—but Libya may be an exception.
It must be admitted that things could still go wrong in Libya. First, it is possible—not likely, as I have argued—that there will be a prolonged military stalemate, and one which could result in much greater civilian casualties. Neither the US or NATO have important security interests in the outcome in Libya, so greatly increased civilian casualties could destroy the moral case for the intervention.
Second, success in Libya might encourage the US to engage in further military interventions elsewhere, even those in which the moral case is weaker and the prospects for success at a reasonable price are less. However, in light of the huge costs (in both economic and human terms) incurred by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems unlikely that the very limited US role in Libya will increase the likelihood of unwise and unnecessary military interventions elsewhere.
Third, we might well come to regret the Libyan intervention as a disaster—regardless of its outcome in Libya itself—if the ultimate consequence were that other small states with no prospect of defending themselves against major US or NATO interventions decide to seek nuclear weapons, the possession of which would surely be an effective deterrent against foreign intervention. But as I argued in my April 8 essay, that would not necessarily be the consequence of the overthrow of the Quaddafi regime, 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.
In short, there continue to be substantial reasons to be uncertain whether the Libyan intervention will prove to be successful in the long run and in the broadest sense. Still, an interim assessment suggests there is a serious case for cautious optimism.