Libya and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention
The fall of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is a significant foreign policy triumph for U.S. President Barack Obama. By setting overall strategy while allowing others to shoulder the burden of implementing it, the Obama administration achieved its short-term objective of stopping Qaddafi's atrocities and its long-term one of removing him from power. This was all done at a modest financial cost, with no U.S. troops on the ground, and zero U.S. casualties. Meanwhile, as the first unambiguous military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect norm, Qaddafi's utter defeat seemingly put new wind in the sails of humanitarian intervention.
One must be careful, however, not to overdraw lessons from the Libyan experience. It was a unique case and is unlikely to be repeated.
For one, Libya had Qaddafi, a villain straight from central casting, who had managed to alienate nearly all UN member states, including his erstwhile Arab and African allies.
The timing was also perfect. As the UN, NATO, and United States debated intervention, leaders in the Middle East were still reeling from the Arab Spring. Acutely aware of the vulnerability of their own regimes, the members of the Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Gulf Cooperation Council all endorsed the UN's declaration of a no-fly zone over Libya, including the use of "all necessary means" to prevent mass atrocities.
In addition, China and Russia, the two permanent members of the Security Council (UNSC) most averse to authorizing military intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, had no special relationship with, or interests in, Libya. So, they had no reason to veto a collective action.
Moreover, Libya is a small country, with a population of only 6.4 million, which is concentrated along a fairly narrow strip of land by the Mediterranean. Thus, the logistics of military intervention promised to be less daunting there than it would have in Sudan, for example, which is fifty percent larger, almost seven times as populous, and has hundreds of thousands soldiers under arms. And since Libya is situated on Europe's doorstep, NATO and the EU were more motivated to provide aerial power and political support for the mission, since regional instability and a wave of refugees would effect them if the revolution failed.
The country also possessed a credible, fairly cohesive, and increasingly capable opposition movement, which provided the ground force that casualty-averse Western governments would not. These rebels ultimately proved able to defeat Qaddafi's military machine.
Finally, Libya was an unambiguous case for applying the RtoP doctrine. To be sure, the atrocities Qaddafi orchestrated in Libya prior to the intervention pale in comparison to those committed during the course of other recent violent conflicts. In Sri Lanka, for example, the government killed thousands of civilians while finishing off the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. And forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have raped tens -- or perhaps hundreds -- of thousands of women over the past decade to sow terror. Qaddafi's violent crackdown on this spring's protests and his explicit promise to "have no mercy and pity" on residents of Benghazi, the opposition stronghold, also left little ambiguity. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in March, "left unchecked, Qaddafi will commit unspeakable atrocities."
Qaddafi's ouster may vindicate the RtoP idea, but the application of the norm will inevitably remain selective and highly contingent on the political context. The humanitarian imperative is a strong and growing global impulse, but statecraft is still subject to constraints of geopolitics, resources, and political will.
What has been most striking in the Libyan case is the Obama administration's vocal leadership in seeking to consolidate RtoP as a vital global norm -- a stark contrast to the lukewarm attitude of the Bush administration. Washington's embrace of RtoP is critical, because the United States is the only country with the power and the credibility to actually enforce it.
Lest one imagine that the Libyan case is a one-off, on August 4 the Obama administration released the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities (PSD-10). The directive defines the prevention of mass atrocities as both "a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." PSD-10 is a groundbreaking document and represents a huge victory for NSS Senior Director Samantha Power, a leading administration hawk on Libya.
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