Intervention without responsibility

The Libyan ‘no-fly’ zone of intervening may have paved new way for treating symptoms without addressing the problem.

Rasmussen of NATO
NATO took months to scramble jets to Libya and relied heavily on US support utilities to operate effectively [EPA]

Cambridge, England – Is NATO’s operation in Libya a model for future Western interventions?

Many argue that the combination of UN legitimacy, Western airpower and indigenous resistance forces is a powerful recipe for taking down dictators. Certainly such an approach avoids the pitfalls of a Western role on the ground, so evident in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2006, the UN Security Council affirmed its support for the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”. This is the idea that if a member state cannot protect its own citizens from crimes against humanity, it is the responsibility of the international community to do so.

“R2P”, as this doctrine is known, would have been a wonderful justification for intervention and liberal imperialism if only the UN were an effective organisation.

Due to Western disinterest in supplying troops for peacekeeping operations, the application of R2P has been typically selective. The primary targets have been weak African states.

However, Libya and the current romance with airpower have breathed new life into ideas like R2P. They have reignited also the neo-conservative belief that democracy can be exported by military means.

Airpower offers the illusion that a “clean” war can be fought. Only the “bad guys” are hit by precision guided munitions. The complexities and moral ambiguities of intervention on the ground are seemingly avoided.

To be sure, contemporary airpower, especially in the hands of the experienced professionals in the USAF and the RAF, is extraordinarily precise. Whatever else one can say about Libya, very few civilian casualties were caused by Western air action.

Airpower, however, remains subject to the vicissitudes of war and the diabolical dilemmas of armed intervention. Its use – and withdrawal – may yet contribute to a protracted civil conflict in Libya.

There are other reasons to doubt Libya will be a model for the future in the way advocates of philanthropic violence hope.

In June 1950, the US called on the UN Security Council to approve the use of force to halt the North Korean invasion of South Korea. The Soviets were boycotting the UN and were absent for the crucial votes. As a result, the US was able to deploy its forces to South Korea under cover of UN authority.

As the fortunes of war turned, US forces invaded North Korea in the fall of 1950, sparking Chinese intervention, risking nuclear war and leading to two years of costly stalemate along the 38th parallel.

The Soviets learned from their mistake and rapidly returned to the UN, their Security Council veto in hand.

Today, the Russians and the Chinese will draw similar lessons from UN Security Council Resolution 1973, authorising the no-fly zone over Libya. This resolution invoked the basic idea of R2P: action by the international community to protect civilians from war crimes.

But in practice UNSC 1973 was tantamount to authorisation for regime change. Certainly this is how the US, the UK and France interpreted it.

Future no-fly zone resolutions will face far greater scepticism. The legitimacy of a Security Council resolution – a crucial piece of the Libya model – may well be unavailable.

Another problem with that model was exposed by the role of the US’ NATO allies and their under-resourced militaries.

While the US retains large and capable forces, its public and political class have been tired of the expense in blood and treasure of foreign adventures. In order to make Libya happen politically, the USAF had to retire into the background after its vital initial debut outside Benghazi. The Europeans and their Gulf allies then took over the sharp end.

But the European air forces remained dependent on US intelligence, command and control, and refuelling assets. NATO was able on any given day to put up an embarrassingly small number of strike missions. That is partly why it took months for the arrayed air forces of the West to take down a nearby, ramshackle desert kingdom run by a murderous buffoon and his sons.

By the end, some of the smaller NATO air forces were hitting the limits of their operational tether. Pilots and ground crew were exhausted; spare parts and munitions running low.

Any future interventions on the Libya model, it would seem, will require enemies as weak and hopeless as Gadaffi’s regime.

In some respects, however, the Libyan intervention does point to the future. But not in ways that will warm the hearts of those who seek to further democracy and enlightenment by force of arms.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has opted for the full nation-building programme at extraordinary cost in lives and money, and with very little to show for its efforts. In Libya, the West learned that a “lighter touch” intervention, conducted from the skies, achieved regime change without political and military costs. Even if Libya were now to sink into civil war, the West could easily blame the situation on the Libyans.

This is an aspect of the Libya model that warrants serious attention: that it is becoming increasingly legitimate to use military power in the global South without taking responsibility for the political and human aftermath.

Such an approach is consonant with the reduced resources of Western states, their publics suffering under the politics of permanent austerity.

Africa, Asia and the Middle East continue to be imagined as sites of danger and of savage crimes requiring intervention. Rogue regimes, failed states, pirate dens, terrorist networks and warlords populate the thinking of both national security experts and advocates of the use of force for humanitarian purposes.

How might these problems be dealt with in future?

Here, Libya offers the prospect of a temporary and limited military intervention to deal with the perceived threat only. A short glorious war is fought without having to take on the burden of sorting out someone else’s country.

Handily, Western powers can proclaim as “anti-imperialist” the absence of the aid and commitment that nation-building requires.

The Obama Administration’s widespread use of drone strikes outside of Afghanistan is another sign that such intervention without responsibility is the way of the future. In Libya, drones were adapted to the purposes of “humanitarian war”.

In retrospect, Libya may appear less a model for the enlightened use of force than a step on the way to a world in which armed intervention is more common and shorn of the “social work” that has characterised both counter-insurgency and UN peacekeeping operations.

We may return to an era in which it is thought that military power can be used “surgically” to deal with problems that are ultimately political, social and economic in nature.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer in the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.