Qaddafi, Moral Interventionism, Libya, and the Arab Revolutionary Moment
Long ago Qaddafi forfeited the domestic legitimacy of his rule, creating the moral and political conditions for an appropriate revolutionary challenge. Recently he has confirmed this assessment by referring to the disaffected portion of his own citizenry as ‘rats and dogs’ or ‘cockroaches,’ employing the bloodthirsty and vengeful language of a demented tyrant. Such a tragically criminal imposition of political abuse on the Libyan experience is a painful reality that exists beyond any reasonable doubt, but does it validate a UN authorized military intervention carried out by a revived partnership of those old colonial partners, France and Britain, and their post-colonial American imperial overseer?
From a personal perspective, my hopes are with the Libyan rebels, despite their reliance on violence and the opaqueness of their political identity. As many credible exile Libyan voices attest, it would seem highly likely that a rebel victory would benefit the people of Libya and would be a step in the right direction for the region, especially the Arab world, but does this entail supporting Western-led military intervention even if it is backed by the United Nations? I believe not.
Let us begin with some unknowns and uncertainties. There is no coherent political identity that can be confidently ascribed to the various anti-Qaddafi
forces, loosely referred to as ‘rebels.’ Just who are they, whom do they represent, and what are their political aspirations? It is worth observing that unlike the other regional events of 2011 the Libyan rising did not last long as a popular movement of a spontaneous character, or unfold as a specific reaction to some horrific incident as in Tunisia. It seemed, although there is some ambiguity in the media reports, that the Libyan oppositional movement was armed and reliant on military force almost from the start, and that its political character seems more in the nature of a traditional insurrection against the established order than a popular revolution in the manner of Tahrir Square inspired by democratic values. This violent political reaction to Qaddafi’s regime seems fully justified as an expression of Libyan self-determination, and as suggested deserves encouragement from world public opinion, including support from such soft power instruments as boycott, divestment, and maybe sanctions. By and large, the international community did not resort to interventionary threats and actions in Libya until the domestic tide turned in favor of Tripoli, which means that the intervention was called upon to overcome the apparent growing likelihood that Qaddafi would reestablish order in his favor, and therefore this international intrusion on the conflict represents a coercive effort to restructure a country’s governing process from without.
The main pretext given for the intervention was the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to the wrath of the Qaddafi regime. But there was little evidence that such wrath extends beyond the regime’s expected defense of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such situation where a government and its leadership is fighting for their survival. How is this Libyan response different in character than the tactics relied upon by the regimes in Yemen and Bahrain, and in the face of far less of a threat to the status quo, and even that taking the form of political resistance, not military action. In Libya the opposition forces relied on heavy weapons, while elsewhere in the region the people were in the streets in massive numbers, and mostly with no weapons, although in a few instances, with very primitive ones (stones, simple guns) that mainly were used in retaliation for regime violence.
It may have been the case that the immediate Libyan governmental response was predictably brutal and militarist, and that the rebel opposition felt that it had no choice. But it should have been clear from the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that military intervention against a hated and brutal regime is not the end of the story, and before the ending is reached violence cascades to heights far beyond what would have likely resulted had there been no intervention. In the process heavy casualties are inflicted and massive displacements occur causing immense suffering for the entrapped and innocent population. In effect, overall historical trends vindicate trust in the dynamics of self-determination despite the fact that short-term disillusioning disasters may and do occur from time to time. These trends similarly underscore the inherently problematic character of intervention, even given the purest of motivations, which rarely, if ever, exists in world politics on the side of intervening parties.
But it can be asked, what about Rwanda, Bosnia (especially, the massacre at Srebrenica)? Are not these instances where humanitarian intervention should have been undertaken and was not? And didn’t the NATO War in Kosovo demonstrate that humanitarian intervention does sometimes spare a vulnerable population from the ordeal of genocidal ethnic cleansing? With respect to Rwanda and Bosnia, the threat of genocidal behavior was clearly established, and could likely have been prevented by a relatively small-scale intervention, and should have been undertaken despite the uncertainties. The facts surrounding the alleged genocidal threat in Kosovo remain contested, but there was a plausible basis for taking it seriously given what had happened a few years earlier in Bosnia. But just as the Libyan rebels raise some suspicion by seeking Euro-American military intervention, so did the KLA in Kosovo engage in terrorist provocations that led to violent Serb responses, allegedly setting the stage in 1999 for NATO’s ‘coalition of the willing.’ NATO went ahead in Kosovo without the benefit of a Security Council mandate, as here, for military action ‘by all necessary means.’ But with respect to Libya there is no firm evidence of a genocidal intention on Qaddafi’s, no humanitarian catastrophe in the making, and not even clear indications of the extent of civilian casualties resulting from the fighting. We should be asking why did Russia signal its intention to veto such authorization in relation to Kosovo, but not with respect to Libya. Perhaps, the Russian sense of identification with Serb interests goes a long way to explain its opportunistic pattern of standing in the way on the earlier occasion when interventionary forces gathered a head of steam in the late 1990s, while standing aside in 2011 in deference to the Euro-American juggernaut.
One of the mysteries surrounding UN support for the Libyan intervention is why China and Russia expressed their opposition by abstaining rather than using their veto, why South Africa voted with the majority, and why Germany, India, and Brazil were content to abstain, yet seeming to express reservations sufficient to produce ‘no’ votes, which would have deprived the interventionist side of the nine affirmative votes that they needed to obtain authorization. Often the veto is used promiscuously, as recently by the United States, to shield Israel from condemnation for their settlement policy, but here the veto was not used when it could have served positive purposes, preventing a non-defensive and destructive military action that seems imprudent and almost certain in the future to be regarded as an unfortunate precedent.
The internal American debate on the use of force was more complex than usual, and cut across party lines. Three positions are worth distinguishing: realists, moral interventionists, moral and legal anti-interventionists. The realists, who usually carry the day when controversial military issues arise in foreign policy debates, on this occasion warned against the intervention, saying it was too uncertain in its effects and costs, that the U.S. was already overstretched in its overseas commitments, and that there were few American strategic interests involved. The moral interventionists, who were in control during the Bush II years, triumphantly reemerged in the company of hawkish Democrats such as Hilary Clinton and Joseph Biden, prevailing in the shaping of policy partly thanks to the push from London and Paris, the acquiescence of the Arab neighbors, and the loss of will on the part of Moscow and Beijing. It is hard to find a war that Republicans will not endorse, especially if the enemy can be personalized as anti-American and demonized as Qaddafi has been, and it always helps to have some oil in the ground! The anti-interventionists, who are generally reluctant about reliance on force in foreign policy except for self-defense, and additionally have doubts about the effectiveness of hard power tactics, especially under Western auspices. These opponents of intervention against Qaddafi were outmaneuvered, especially at the United Nations and in the sensationalist media that confused the Qaddafi horror show for no brainer/slam dunk reasoning on the question of intervention, treating it almost exclusively as a question of ‘how,’ rather than ‘whether,’ and once again failing to fulfill their role in a democratic society by giving no attention to the full spectrum of viewpoints, including the anti-intervention position.
Finally, there arises the question of the UN authorization itself by way of Security Council Resolution 1373. The way international law is generally understood, there is no doubt that the Security Council vote, however questionable on moral and political grounds and in relation to the Charter text and values, resolves the legal issue within the UN system. An earlier World Court decision, ironically involving Libya, concluded that even when the UN Security Council contravenes relevant norms of international law, its decisions are binding and authoritative. Here, the Security Council has reached a decision supportive of military intervention that is legal, but in my judgment not legitimate, being neither politically prudent nor morally acceptable. The states that abstained acted irresponsibly, or put differently, did not uphold either the spirit or letter of the Charter. The Charter in Article 2(7) establishes a prohibition on UN authority to intervene in matters ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction’ of member states unless there is a genuine issue of international peace and security present. Here there was not the basis for an exception to non-intervention as even the claim was supposedly motivated solely to protect the civilian population of eastern Libya, and hence was squarely within the domestic jurisdiction of Libya.
Besides, the claim to intervene as stated was patently misleading and disingenuous as the obvious goals, as became manifest from the scale and nature of military action as soon as the operation commenced. The actual goals of the intervention were minimally to protect the armed rebels from being defeated, and possibly destroyed, and maximally, to achieve a regime change resulting in a new governing leadership for Libya that was friendly to the West, including buying fully into its liberal economic geopolitical policy compass. The missile attacks in the vicinity of Tripoli, especially the early missile hits on the Qaddafi compound are unmistakable signatures of this wider intention. As the Gulf War in 1991 demonstrated, once the Security Council authorizes military action of an unspecified character, it gives up any further responsibility for or effort to maintain operational control and accountability.
Using a slightly altered language, the UN Charter embedded a social contract with its membership that privileged the politics of self-determination and was heavily weighted against the politics of intervention. Neither position is absolute, but what seems to have happened with respect to Libya is that intervention was privileged and self-determination cast aside. It is an instance of normatively dubious practice trumping the legal/moral ethos of containing geopolitical discretion in relation to obligatory rules governing the use of force and the duty of non-intervention. We do not know yet what will happen in Libya, but we already know enough to oppose such a precedent that exhibits so many unfortunate characteristics. It is time to restore the global social contract between territorial sovereign states and the organized international community, which not only corresponds with the outlawry of aggressive war but also reflects the movement of history in support of the soft power struggles of the non-Western peoples of the world.
If ordinary citizens were allowed to have foreign policy doctrines mine would be this: without high levels of confidence in a proposed course of military action, the UN should never agree to allow states to engage in violent action that kills people. And if this cautionary principle is ignored, governments should expect that their behavior would be widely viewed in the public as a species of international criminality, and the UN is likely to be regarded as more of a creature of politics than law and morality. For these reasons it would have been my preference to have had the abstainers in the Security Council voting against Resolution 1973. It is likely that the coalition of the willing would have gone forward in any event, but at least without the apparent UN seal of approval.