Libya No-Fly Zone: The Problems With Interventionism


One day after a coalition led by the U.S., France and the UK launched a sweeping air assault on targets in Libya – including a volley of cruise missiles fired at defenses in and around the densely packed capital – Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League said in a statement that, "what is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone."

“What we want,” he continued, “is the protection of civilians and not the shelling of more civilians." According to the Washington Post, he pledged to “call a new league meeting to reconsider Arab approval of the Western military intervention

He may not be the only one questioning the wisdom of the policy. The United States finds itself suddenly thrust into war, with little public debate. The administration and military leaders insist that the U.S. will take a supporting role, and promise that the mission will be brief and focused on modest goals. But when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen made the rounds on the Sunday political shows this week, he made it clear that, in the words of the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel, “right now, there just aren't many answers: how long the U.S. will stay involved, how long a no-fly zone will stay in place, and how much capacity the U.S. military has to sustain another conflict.”

Back home, the attacks have divided a public wary of yet another entanglement. Unlike Iraq, which was sold to the public as a necessary act of collective security, the Libya no-fly zone is a multilateral humanitarian intervention intended to prevent the slaughter of those trying to depose the Gaddafi regime. Yet there is also good reason to be skeptical about where it will lead.

Conceptually, humanitarian intervention is a rather beautiful thing. State sovereignty had been seen as absolute for 350 years, but then the universal human rights regime emerged and the idea took hold that a state's responsibility to defend its people trumped its right to territorial sovereignty. When a state massacres its people rather than protecting them, the human family, working through broadly legitimate international institutions, would intervene, militarily if need be, to spare the vulnerable. This has become known as the "responsibility to protect," and you can read all about it here (PDF).

Those who believe in this principle will find it difficult to say they "oppose" the no-fly zone established over Libya. The country offers a rather clear-cut example of a despotic government poised to massacre thousands of its own, and here is the international community responding forcefully to spare their lives. Perhaps it will be a textbook example of the "responsibility to protect" in action.

I imagine that most of those who oppose the action would like nothing more than to have their skepticism proven to be unfounded. At the same time, there is every reason to be deeply cynical about the prospects of success. Because while the principles underlying humanitarian intervention are well developed, the institutions charged with implementing them are certainly not.

For those of us who have long argued to develop those institutions more fully, this no-fly zone leads to distinctly mixed feelings. Under the circumstances, doing nothing would not only be profoundly irresponsible, it would also violate our core belief in the imperative of respecting essential human rights. Yet, having studied our history, we also know that the potential for unintended consequences -- for a bad situation to be turned into something worse -- are real, and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, or due to wishful thinking.

Books have been written about the challenges of humanitarian intervention, but here's a very quick-and-dirty summary of three of the most daunting.

1) Mission creep

Last week, I wrote that limited interventions -- with promises that the goals will be limited and, in the case of no-fly zones and naval embargoes, that no ground troops will be deployed -- are like a "gateway drug" leading all too easily to expanded conflict. This is an institutional reality; the Security Council states are now invested in this conflict, but there is no reason to be confident

Gaddafi's regime will fall quickly. As the saying goes, in for a penny, in for a pound. Having entered the conflict, the temptation to escalate our involvement -- to add "regime change" and "state-building" to the agenda -- is going to be difficult for the Security Council to resist.

You can go through the history of multilateral interventions -- from Korea through Somalia (but not in Rwanda so soon after getting humiliated in Mogadishu) -- and what you'll find in virtually every case is not a single Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force, but a series of them authorizing ever-greater military involvement in the conflict. This reality cannot be ignored. 

As Amanda Terkel noted, when Mullen "was asked whether, at some point, forces will be ordered to take out Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, he said, 'I wouldn't speculate what the mission might be in the future.'"

2) Insufficient resources

If the mission creeps -- or, if it drags on -- then history also suggests we're likely to end up with the worst of both worlds: a broad mandate coupled with insufficient resources to do the job right. 

This is almost always the case in the UN system, which has no independent source of funding and must rely on the dues and pledges of its member states to undertake any action. It's the same whether you want to talk about humanitarian intervention or relief from famine, drought or natural disaster. At the beginning, with shocking footage of rebel forces being massacred, children starving or tsunamis hitting the beach flashing across the world's TV screens, it's easy to commit all kinds of resources to help. But these actions are costly, and those resources have to be authorized by domestic legislatures. And it's not just the money at stake -- national governments also have to deal with all manner of domestic and international political calculations.

In the case of military interventions, under-funding can lead to disastrous results, with the most obvious example being the horrific failure of UNAMIR leading up to and during the Rwanda genocide. Afterward, Canadian

Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN mission, famously claimed that with 5,000 more troops he could have halted the killing.

 3) Politicization

Finally, the nature of the UN decision-making process itself is a huge challenge to these kinds of interventions being viewed as legitimate. Central to the "responsibility to protect" concept is that it is based on an imperative to uphold certain basic human rights, and not on international political (or economic) considerations. So the entire venture rests on the decision of when and where to intervene being made in some relatively apolitical fashion. In the real world, of course, given that the power of the Security Council, and thus the entire United Nations system, rests in the hands of the five permanent, veto-wielding members -- the most powerful states, each with its own internal and external politics to manage -- this is impossible to achieve.

That an intervention be widely perceived as legitimate is not just some abstract academic issue. Combatants are far less likely to engage in the political process that must always accompany such actions if they view them as prettied-up acts of neo-colonialism or cover for other, more powerful states' agendas. It is an almost surreal inconsistency that the West is intervening against a despot in Libya even as its closest allies in the region intervene to support another in neighboring Bahrain.

So, again, many who oppose -- or are at least skeptical of humanitarian intervention -- support it in theory, and have long argued for reforms that might address these issues. That they're frequently portrayed as "isolationists" is a bitter irony.

Security Council reform -- gradually phasing out the veto power enjoyed by "permanent five," or providing a mechanism to override a veto -- has been a long-time goal of human rights activists. But, as you might imagine, the P-5 have fought it tooth-and-nail.

There have also long been calls for a dedicated and independent UN intervention force, which wouldn't rest on the ad-hoc pledges of UN member states. Similarly, reformers have long argued that an independent funding mechanism for UN actions -- both military and humanitarian -- must be created through some variation of the "Lula Fund" or "Tobin tax."

A final but important note: anyone who holds an idealized view of "clean" and "precise" modern warfare is simply deluded. Despite being widely portrayed by the media as a UN air patrol designed to deny the regime's forces the capacity to wipe out their enemies from above, Western powers are dropping tons of munitions on Libya. Make no mistake: innocent people will die. There will be "collateral damage" -- it's the nature of the game, and that can't be ignored. Whether one ultimately supports or opposes this "no-fly zone," those who find themselves conflicted about this sudden war should, at a minimum, oppose its escalation into a broader conflict.

Hopefully, it will work exactly as promised -- lives will be spared, opposition forces will be emboldened and the Libyan regime will crumble under the pressure of international isolation. Hopefully, the skeptics among us will be proven wrong. But it's important to understand that the history of these adventures, no matter how well intentioned, doesn't provide much cause for optimism. And one doesn't have to be an "isolationist" to see that.

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