Two cheers for intervention in Libya

I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis over what to say about the intervention in Libya. I abhor war and have spent most of my life trying to stop US military interventions, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. I never favor militarist solutions.

Yet I find the current operation partially justified. Already it has saved many civilian lives. As Juan Cole notes, Gaddafi’s tanks and planes killed thousands of Libyans in the weeks before the intervention, and they were poised to slaughter many more before they were stopped last week. The international air strikes have halted the regime’s advances and enabled the opposition to recapture lost ground.

The intervention is supported by the Libyan liberation movement and has multilateral authority and participation, with backing from the Arab League and UN Security Council. It is an unprecedented attempt by the international community to exercise the ‘responsibility to protect.’  So far the use of force has been targeted and has not resulted in many civilian casualties.

Yes, the operation has many dangers and contradictions and poses ethical challenges. There is no end game in sight, and no apparent strategy for ending the hostilities and preventing further bloodshed. The mission is ambiguous and contradictory. Officially the goal is protecting civilians, but President Obama and other leaders have called for regime change. Is one possible without the other? If not, how can a limited air operation and rag tag rebellion remove the dictatorship? What will replace the current regime, and what happens if there is a stalemate and Libya ends up with two contesting regimes?

Many uncertainties lie ahead. The air operation must stay focused on civilian protection and should be limited in scope and duration. I will oppose the mission if it leads to wider loss of life or deeper military involvement.  For now, though, count me as one who hopes that the multilateral intervention proves successful and paves the way for Gaddafi’s departure.

4 thoughts on “Two cheers for intervention in Libya

  1. Thanks, David. Good to hear your thoughts on this.

    It will be interesting to follow how events in Libya impact the use of R2P as a future precedent. While I think it is still being selectively applied in this case due to interests other than potential for the violent loss of civilian life (and also not just related to achievability either… we would of course argue that the LRA provides an even more achievable opportunity for an R2P intervention of sorts, which would not even require going against the wishes or interests of any governments as Libya does) it is nonetheless encouraging that the basic idea of such an intervention for the sake of protecting civilians is gaining traction.

    Of course, the fear is that if it is handled badly or produces adverse unintended consequences then it could set back the progression of the norm.

  2. As a long time peace activist I too have felt outside of my comfort zone on this one. I have wished that the leaders of the peace movement would weigh in, but I hear very little that isn’t cynical, sarcastic, blaming for past mistakes, or posing unhelpful objections that have no answer, such as “We don’t know where this will end”. Let’s help shape where it’s going at least.

    I respect and share the impulse to secure the safety of possibly tens of thousands of Libyans from brutal repression. Watching events unfold could not help but engage the desire to prevent what appeared to be an impending blood bath.

    After two disastrous military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that have amply demonstrated how counterprodctive military force can be to achieve questionable ends, Americans are justifiably wary. Not only have those adventures cost many more lives than they have saved, they have weakened the US economy, accounting for 23% of the deficit over the last 10 years.

    Experience indicates that to avoid the pitfalls of prolonged involvement and “mission creep”, and to have any hope of saving lives, the use of military power in a crisis such as that in Libya would have to be under very circumscribed conditions.

    Military action would come as a last resort after other efforts had failed and only when the threat was clear and imminent. Such efforts would include: 1) aggressive diplomatic pressure, 2) economic sanctions not affecting the basic needs of the populace, 3) a complete arms embargo of the country, 4) multilateral consultation with actors in the region, not just the traditional Western alliance, and 5) support for the escape and care of refugees. To its credit most of these were apparently employed by the Obama administration and fast action was needed. All of these measures should continue during and after whatever brief air or missile attack is used to force aggressive advances to end.

    A very limited military action would aim to halt the hostilities of both sides so that space is created for political solutions to take hold. It would not aim to support one side against the other, but only to stop the killing. Those political solutions will take time and the point will be to lead to a state where human rights are respected.

    Once a cease fire is accomplished, intermediary measures to prevent outbreaks of violence and assure progress toward a peaceful solution could include United Nations peacekeeping troops, the International Red Cross, unarmed peacekeepers such as Nonviolent Peaceforce, trained human rights monitors, civilian advisors to prepare the country for a plebiscite, and continued international economic and diplomatic pressure especially from Libya’s neighbors and allies.

    Such measures would not include arming one side of the conflict, inserting a clandestine military force such as that available to the CIA, or announcing and plotting the removal of the current regime.

    I think we should urge our Representatives in Congress to closely monitor the situation in Libya to assure that diplomatic and other peaceful responses are emphasized and that the US does not deepen its involvement by sending military trainers, using NATO or other proxies to supply weapons, or using the CIA to destabalize the situation. We should also use this opportunity to demand that measures be taken to halt the sale of weapons worldwide, noting that the proliferation of arms has contributed to this crisis and made the world more dangerous and volatile, jeopardizing the lives of civilians and the cause of peace everywhere.

  3. I must say, despite all the arguments of the “slaughter averted” I am of the same sentiment as Michael Nagler. “Two cheers for intervention in Lybia” sounds like we are rooting for a soccer team.

    It appears to me that the wheels of world justice turn on power and greed. We the people of the world need to demand that our leaders bring us tolerance, cooperation and compassion; put an end to the killing; stop employing us to be murders and cheerleaders.

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