Humanitarian Intervention in Libya?

U.S. Air Force EF-111 used for the enforcement of a no-fly zoneUnlike the despots in Egypt and Tunisia, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is resisting the popular revolutions sweeping the Arab world. As of this writing, the pro-democracy rebels successfully control Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and most of the eastern part of the country. Gaddafi still controls most of the military, revolutionary committees, and foreign mercenaries. More importantly, Gaddafi controls the capital city of Tripoli with a population of 2.5 million out of a total population of 6.5 million. Gaddafi is attacking the rebels, taking back Zawiya, Ras Lanof, and pushing forward east to take more rebel areas.

Those beating the war drums claim that since Obama asked Gaddafi to step down, the United States will lose credibility if it does not act to hasten Gaddafi’s removal. Worse, the Libyan leader, if he retains control, may launch “a mass murder of innocents,” argues Geoffrey Robinson of the UN’s justice council. With the lives of many Libyans at stake, pressure is building for the United States to lead a humanitarian intervention to support the rebels and topple Gaddafi. Proponents argue that conditions on the ground create an open-and-shut case for such intervention.

The shouting sounds familiar. Many of the players that called for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 are echoing the same group think. Last time around, the president of the United States and his administration led the cry for the invasion of Iraq. This time, the administration has stated that, although exploring a full range of options, it has not put enforcing a no-fly zone on the table just now.

Humanitarian intervention is a controversial tactic. The international community should consider such a course of action in Libya only after a thorough assessment of means and ends.

Arab Ownership of the Revolution

Libyan rebels early on claimed pride in their efforts to oust Gaddafi and didn’t want foreign intervention, reported NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. President Obama’s remarks at a March 3 press conference recognized this sensitivity about foreign intervention: “One of the extraordinary successes of Egypt was the full ownership that the Egyptian people felt for that transformation. That has served the Egyptian people well. It serves U.S. interests well. We did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that movement in Egypt precisely because they felt that we hadn’t tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome, but rather they owned it.”

By the end of the first week of the Libyan revolution, and although Libyan rebels had not requested any help, conservatives and neoconservatives began answering the nonexistent call for military intervention and deriding the administration for not doing enough. As the Gaddafi regime became more aggressive toward the rebels and casualties mounted, some Libyan rebels debated whether to call for limited Western military intervention under UN auspices. Their initial desire for help with airstrikes against Gaddafi forces reflected their impatience and desperation.

For decades, the Arab League represented despotic regimes. But now the Arab League, with prodding from the Libyan opposition’s Interim Transitional National Council, has asked the UN to impose a no-fly zone only through a Security Council decision. The lessons of outside unilateral intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan—and non-UN-imposed no-fly zones–are too strong to ignore. U.S. military leaders have also expressed the reluctance of the United States and NATO to get involved right now. They are supporting the Arab League’s no-fly zone recommendation, but it stopped short of endorsement.

In countries like Libya, just as in Iraq, outside calls for humanitarian military intervention in a country with significant oil reserves are met with suspicion. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “after Iraq, we just don’t have a realistic option of invading another Arab country with oil.” Intervention will bring the ire of the Arab street and celebrations from al-Qaeda.

Assessing the Moral Conditions

Humanitarian intervention has come to mean the use, or the threat of use, of military intervention in the affairs of another country for the sake of stopping a humanitarian disaster and protecting the people in that country from violations of human rights. For some, like Harvard law professor Ryan Goodman, linking the term humanitarian to military intervention is contrary to international law and done for the purpose of justifying a preemptive military invasion of another country. For the UN’s Geoffrey Robertson, “there is now a narrowly proscribed international law right for states to render assistance to innocent civilians battling for their lives.”

Four questions must be considered before recommending military intervention based on humanitarian considerations.

First, when would such a military intervention in Libya be morally justifiable? Is it when Gaddafi kills hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, or more? Military intervention will also result in many deaths, of Gaddafi supporters, rebels, and the intervening soldiers. All human lives are of equal worth in their humanity. As Mahatma Gandhi queried in Non-Violence in Peace and War, “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?” If the answer is we must always act, then why did proposals to intervene in similar cases throughout the world–such as in Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and the Congo– not merit the same serious consideration?

Second, who should carry it out the intervention? UN intervention in past international crises has met with mixed results, yet is the only organization that represents a global consensus. The UN should explore several avenues including: a peaceful removal of Gaddafi and guarantee of safe passage to exile; a guarantee of safety to his soldiers without retribution; a UN-sponsored election; recognition and enforcement of a UN-administered ceasefire. The UN can mobilize other international bodies to erode Gaddafi’s authority if the situation continues to deteriorate. The International Criminal Court (ICC) could be asked to investigate Gaddafi’s alleged crimes against humanity.

Neither the Western powers nor NATO enjoys full credibility among the Arab people, who believe that Western and U.S. policies in the Middle East lack moral consistency. For example, amid massive anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urged that government to expedite reforms during his announced visit. Yet immediately after he left, Saudi Arabia sent a thousand troops to prop up the regime, as if the United States gave the Saudis the green light to intervene.

Any unilateral military intervention by the United States or NATO alone will be characterized as Western imperialism and a grab for Arab oil. If the Gaddafi regime continues its slaughter and the UN refuses to intervene militarily, the United States or NATO could possibly intervene militarily if and only if they pledge no covert or overt manipulation of an election or engineering of a new Libyan government. While skeptical that such a pledge could be trusted–for the sake of saving so many lives–it is an option on the table.

Third, how should a humanitarian intervention be carried out? If the rebel leaders are credible and represent a large and diverse segment of Libyan society, they will need assistance to determine the type, scope, and means of the military intervention. After the request is made, the rebel leaders and the military interventionists must agree on answers to all of these questions prior to commencing the intervention. In order to create conditions that are as humane as possible, the planners should concentrate on operations that create the fewest casualties for all sides. The UN should also be prepared to negotiate a peaceful outcome as long as the primary demands are met.

End Game

Too many interventions have occurred in the past decade without identification of reasonable outcomes. The UN, while respecting the Libyan revolutionaries’ goals, can demand a commitment to democratic values through free and fair elections within a specified time period. The UN can play its role by supporting the groundwork for these elections and providing international observers.

Humanitarian intervention, if any, should be carried out by the UN under the strict conditions outlined above and only for the sole purpose of ameliorating a potential humanitarian disaster. For now, the UN and other nations can immediately offer humanitarian assistance by providing food, shelter, and medicine to refugees. The American people should insist on spreading our Jeffersonian ideals of freedom and democracy to the Arab people peacefully through offerings of educational, technological, and economic development.

But the American people should say no to the use of humanitarian intervention as a cover for U.S. hegemony.

Adil E. Shamoo, is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, and writes on ethics and public policy. He is a professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine. He can be reached at ashamoo@umaryland.edu.