Protective Military Interventionism: The Pros and Cons

With the Qaddafi regime collapsing, now is an appropriate time to begin assessing the implications of the NATO-led military mission, and of the broader policy of multilateral protective interventionism.

I was an early supporter of the no-fly zone, which morphed into a campaign of air support for the Libyan rebels. It was unusual for me to support armed action, since I have been an active opponent of U.S. military interventionism for decades, from Vietnam and Central America to Iraq and Afghanistan. As a peace activist and scholar I abhor war and believe that nonviolent solutions are available for resolving conflicts. But I felt that multilateral military action in Libya was warranted because of the imminent threat of massacres in Benghazi and other threatened cities back in March.

In making the case for military intervention, President Obama and other Western officials invoked the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). When governments are unable to protect their citizens, or are actively terrorizing their own people and committing mass murder, the international community has a responsibility to step in and help those who are victimized. This principle was endorsed by world leaders at the UN World Summit in 2005 and by a resolution of the UN Security Council in 2006. Libya is the first example of a formal attempt to implement the principle through multilateral military intervention.

The intervention was legal under international law because it had the backing of the UN Security Council. It also had regional political legitimacy as the Arab League voted in March for the UN to impose a no-fly zone and create “safe zones” in Libya, declaring that the Qaddafi regime had lost its right to sovereignty because of its attacks against civilians. The Security Council responded to the Arab League request by adopting Resolution 1973, which authorized the multilateral military mission, condemning the Qaddafi regime’s “widespread and systematic attacks” against civilians. In June the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Qaddafi and his sons for crimes against humanity in the massacre of innocent civilians.

The implications of these developments for future policy are uncertain.  It was encouraging to see the international community demonstrate such quick and forceful resolve in responding to government abuse against its own people. Whether this action will serve as a model for other interventions against brutal regimes is uncertain. Some are asking if the Arab League and NATO should take action to save the people of Syria from the murderous actions of the Assad regime. That seems unlikely in the near term, but the apparent success of intervention in Libya may give pause to tyrants who claim the right to massacre their own citizens with impunity. The NATO-led action in Libya may signal a more active international commitment to opposing genocide and mass murder.

On the other hand, many questions are raised by the Libya experience. Protective intervention is indeed a legitimate principle of human security, but the use of military force should be a last resort, not the primary or only means of intervention. The success in Libya may create a false impression of the efficacy of military force and prompt some to argue for more frequent military interventions around the world. This could divert attention from nonmilitary tools of policy—including sanctions and diplomacy—that can help to prevent armed conflict and human rights abuse.

Troubling legal and constitutional questions are raised by the Obama administration’s refusal to seek congressional authorization for the use of force.  This reinforces the claim of executive war making privilege, weakens legislative authority, and increases the danger of future abuses of power.

The Libya intervention also brings into question NATO’s role as the instrument for multilateral intervention in regions beyond Europe. If protective intervention is to become global policy, an appropriate international legal framework needs to be created for this purpose. A more diverse security capability needs to be developed, one that is structured according to human security principles, as Mary Kaldor has advocated, and that is oriented toward policing rather than military action, as Robert Johansen has argued.  

These questions deserve debate and discussion in the coming months. Your comments are welcome.

4 thoughts on “Protective Military Interventionism: The Pros and Cons

  1. I would hope that decision-makers and analysts would reserve final judgement on the intervention, whether positive or negative, until there is a better understanding of where Libya is now headed and what exactly happened in the months during the intervention.

    How many civilians were killed? Will rebel fighters simply transition back into civilian life? Will the TNC be able to pull something together that is representative of, and accepted by, the Libyan people? From what I have read there seems to be quite a disconnect between rebel fighters and the TNC.

    Many cheered when Saddam fell (certainly the situation in Libya is far different than the situation in Iraq, as was the intervention) not forseeing the sectarian violence that would spiral out of control, precipitated by the US invasion and form of occupation. No cheering is yet in order simply because Qaddafi was removed from power. Foreign military intervention to remove a dictator hasn’t produced good results in recent history, it has often produced additional conflict, violence, tribalism, and sectarian divides.

  2. We will debate & discuss this issue at some length, I suspect, at our 9.11.11 forum, Nonviolent Responses to Terrorism. It is heartening, as well, that this topic has reached the pages of the New York Times: “Give Pacifism a Chance” by Louisa Thomas, August 27, 2011.

  3. Of course, it’s also possible that the Arab League and the U.N. R2P resolutions were motivated by reasons other than “preventing massacres.” Surely, there have been massacres associated with the Libyan “kinetic” activities.

    Inevitably, R2P will be measured against the March 2011 potential for massacre and the much larger number of deaths the Libyan kinetic military action has resulted in. (independent estimates are in the many thousands).

    To the victors belong the spoils, as usual. Just as the world is quiet at the French imposition of Outtara and Outtara’s massacres in Cote D’Ivoire. The U.N also approved the introduction of French Troops and bombers into that conflict.

    The U.N. has done as much harm as good in this conflict as well as in all the rest.

  4. I’d say that one can’t make a valid comment on the issues of peace and war in Libya, or abroad in general, without these two considerations:

    1. To take in account the fact that the U.S. aggressive policies permeate almost every corner of the globe, and that it happens in ways that we might not know about, or readily recognise.

    2. To take in account that US aggressive policies permeate the mainstream media, and consequently, to inform yourself from non-mainstream sources on the ground. For Libya, such sources may be like these

    By the way, AFAIK, R2P is neither a principle to invade a country where human rights are grossly unprotected, nor is it adopted by any international body:

    As a layman, I feel embarrassed to respond in this way to a university teacher and politologist. There is another Notre Dame faculty member I know personally. He teaches premodern history, but has no problem discussing present-day US imperialism… in his spare time. (Maybe that’s a clue.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s