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Humanitarian Intervention Comes of Age

Lessons From Somalia to Libya

Courtesy Reuters

No sooner had NATO launched its first air strike in Libya than the mission was thrown into controversy -- and with it, the more general notion of humanitarian intervention. Days after the UN Security Council authorized international forces to protect civilians and establish a no-fly zone, NATO seemed to go beyond its mandate as several of its members explicitly demanded that Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi step down. It soon became clear that the fighting would last longer than expected. Foreign policy realists and other critics likened the Libyan operation to the disastrous engagements of the early 1990s in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, arguing that humanitarian intervention is the wrong way to respond to intrastate violence and civil war, especially following the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

To some extent, widespread skepticism is understandable: past failures have been more newsworthy than successes, and foreign interventions inevitably face steep challenges. Yet such

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