Strategic Dialogue: Intervene or Not in Libya?

In our latest strategic dialogue, Adil Shamoo and Islam Qasem square off on the question of whether or not to intervene militarily in Libya. In his initial contribution to the debate, Shamoo urges a “thorough assessment of means and end” before pursuing military action in Libya. Qasem, on the contrary, argues that “time is running out for intervention in Libya” and the consequence of inaction are enormous. Here they respond to each other’s arguments.

Islam Qasem

Nothing is more tragic than not stopping a genocide from taking place when all facts and signs indicate that such a tragedy is about to take place. “I have two words for our brothers and sisters in the east: We are coming,” warned Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. With Ajdabiya falling into the hands of Gaddafi, his death squads are now zeroing in on the stronghold of the opposition in Benghazi. Expecting the worse from a dictator that has been ruthless for 42 years, the people are fleeing Benghazi. For these people it is a question of life or death.

Despite the urgent humanitarian situation, skepticism abounds about Western intentions and the need for imposing a no-fly zone. Typical of the counter-intervention reasoning, Adil Shamoo’s article outlines several concerns.

First, Shamoo fears that intervention would cause civilian casualties. But what about the civilian casualties Gaddafi’s terror campaign would inflect on the people of Benghazi and other rebel cities? Moreover, the purpose of the intervention is not to bombard Tripoli but to ground Gaddafi’s air force. To put things in perspective it is relevant to recall how Saddam Hussein suppressed the Kurdish and the Shiite uprisings in 1991. Imagine had Western powers not imposed a no-fly zone in the north and the south what would have happened to the Kurdish refugees.

Second, Shamoo goes to great lengths to deny the legitimacy of Western intervention. No doubt the UN should authorize the intervention, and it is a great relief that the UN might finally pass a resolution. But let us call a spade a spade — only the Western powers have the means and are in the position to intervene. Not only the Arab League and the African Union have endorsed intervention, but also the Libyan opposition itself has repeatedly called for intervention. Hear it from the mouth of Mustafa Gheriani, a council spokesman: “We know Canada’s history and tradition favoring human rights and human dignity. And we are saying we need you now. Not tomorrow. This is the moment where it can really count.” Shamoo is under the illusion that the UN could bring about “a peaceful remove of Gaddafi and guarantee of safe passage to exile.” Far from it. Gaddafi himself made it very clear: “I am not going to leave this land. I will die here as a martyr.”

Third, in the same vein, Shamoo warns that Gaddafi will weave western intervention into an imperialist narrative, an intervention to steal Libyan oil. But this is a difficult narrative to sell. Neither the Libyans nor the rest of the Arab world will buy it. The Arab people sympathize with the Libyans, for everybody knows the pitiless nature of Gaddafi. Instead of paying attention to Gaddafi’s ranting, Shamoo needs to hear the voices of the thousands of Benghazi women who gathered along the waterfront chanting “No-fly zone.”

“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,” Shamoo writes. Unfortunately, dictators who have gone on a killing rampage do not wait for a “thorough assessment.” By the time such assessment is concluded, the world will have to live with yet another genocide.

Adil Shamoo

I understand the fears and anxiety expressed in Islam Qasim’s article for the Libyans rebels. I also understand Qasim’s concerns regarding the rampant human rights violations by the Gaddafi regime that was expressed in my original article too. He says that time is running out for imposing a no-fly zone, which Western countries should therefore impose immediately. We forget that Gaddafi was popular when he came to power in 1969. His popularity was rooted in the Libyan’s people anti-colonialists struggle and sacrifices from 1951 to 1969. This is important if we are introducing a foreign occupier all over again.

The author criticizes the “cost-benefit” analysis calculations of the Western powers, but he proceeds with several cost-benefit analyses of his own: a no-fly zone is less costly if imposed now compared to troops on the ground later, access to Libyan oil could be hampered if Gaddafi wins, and Gaddafi will stop cooperation on illegal immigration of Libyans to the west.

Finally, I have grave doubts that imposing a no-fly zone alone will work. Gaddafi’s army has helicopters, tanks, and guns. A no-fly zone alone cannot stop all of them. This is why the Western countries are discussing additional steps including ground forces.

I have fundamental differences with the article on several fronts. He states: “Western countries lose credibility as human rights defenders and champions of freedom through their hesitation to act.” The author assumes a lot when he bestows a noble title on the West as “human rights defenders.” Although I admit that in the past 60 years, the West may have had some credentials in that regard in Second World War, the Balkans, and occasionally in Africa, they have also had concurrently a dismal record. The Western powers invaded and occupied countries in the Middle East and violated human rights wholesale –as only one example of many. Also, I do not have as strong a faith as the author in the West’s noble intentions to defend the human rights of Libyans but not their rights of oil ownership and engineering the next regime to their liking.

The author correctly reminds us of potential atrocities Gaddafi could commit in similar fashion to those committed by Saddam Hussein in the 1991 uprising. However, he never mentions that the United States and Britain in 2003 preemptively invaded Iraq for false reasons and without a UN resolution. The Western powers caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis as well as wounding over one half million people and left Iraq’s infrastructure in ruins. The invasion of Iraq is a strong indicator of the Western’s lack of nobility toward Middle Eastern people.

If the West is concerned with human right abuses only, why have we not heard calls for intervention against the Saudi’s regime and its iron grip over its people using sophisticated security apparatus supplied by the West. Why we have not heard the calls for intervention in Bahrain with a minority regime governing the country for over four decades and now with Saudi’s troop’s help. Bahrain has treated the peaceful demonstrators harshly and has just imposed martial law. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote recently that “Bahrain Pulls a Qaddafi” by shooting peaceful demonstrators. Why the calls for a humanitarian intervention in Libya but silence in reference to Bahrain? Finally, we did not hear calls for humanitarian intervention in Congo, Rwanda, and Ivory Coast.

The Obama administration has recently expressed readiness to impose a no-fly zone through a UN resolution. The administration is wise in holding the line that the United States will get involved when the UN issues its decision. In rare and unique circumstances one can foresee a unilateral humanitarian intervention as long as the intervening power pledges openly that it will respect the will of the people and will leave as soon as possible.

Islam Qasem is a strategic analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. 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