Libya Intervention - An Audit

by Tim Holmes

Tim Holmes evaluates the case for intervention in Libya, adducing compelling arguments both for and against.

First published: 28 March, 2011 | Category: Foreign policy, Terror/War

In his recent interview with the New Left Project, Richard Seymour argues that, while an assessment of the costs and benefits of military intervention in Libya “must be taken seriously”, the supporters of such interventions generally fail to produce any “serious accounting” or “audit” capable of this task. What follows is a fairly rough-and-ready attempt to conduct such an audit. It is thoroughly provisional and incomplete, and would benefit from additional input: comments clarifying or qualifying the points raised here are particularly welcome.

I come to this topic without any firm or decisive opinions of my own. Both interventionist and non-interventionist positions – when properly qualified – appear to me to have valid and compelling points in their favour. Resolving these conflicts – if this is indeed possible – seems to require a number of things. Firstly, a clarification of which relevant principles should be brought to bear. This is undoubtedly easier said than done, as many morally-relevant factors impinge on one another, or cannot be weighed against each other on the same scale. Secondly, a review of the evidence – made harder by the sheer extent of available information, and by its relative inaccessibility: important pieces of information are routinely buried rather than foregrounded. Thirdly, some accommodation between varying interpretations of this evidence, in particular regarding levels of likely risk.

Questions of principle

The relevant questions of principle considered here draw on various lines of ethical thought: the criteria for just wars; intended, likely and risked consequences; rules of thumb; and current preferences – among others.

George Monbiot and philosopher Paula Casal list the following criteria for the legitimate use of force:

“The violence contemplated must be a response to a life and death situation: in which death or grievous bodily harm is threatened by a failure to act. All other means of achieving your objectives must have been exhausted. The violence used must be the minimum necessary to achieve your ends. It must have a high likelihood of success. It must reduce, rather than increase, the sum total of violent conflict.”

To this we can add some other serious morally relevant considerations. How much control do we realistically exercise over the perpetrators? What are the motives of the perpetrators? What is the track record of the perpetrators? How much reliable knowledge of the situation is realistically available to us? Do we have the consent of the people whose lives we may be putting at risk? Is it legal? Does it preclude other actions, or divert resources from other areas?

From this we can derive ten broad, morally-relevant areas to consider:

    1.  Ultimate motives of perpetrators

    2.  Specific intended consequences of perpetrators

    3.  Likely and risked consequences

    4.  Consent of the victims

    5.  Legality

    6.  How much we can control

    7.  How much we can really know

    8.  Questions of last resort

    9.  The minimising of violence

    10. Opportunity costs

Clearly these areas can often relate to one another in significant ways. The limits to our knowledge of the situation may preclude firmer judgments of likely consequences, for example; risked consequences might be overruled by the consent of the victims.

Having acknowledged these difficulties, let us take each of these areas in turn.

1. Motives of the perpetrators

i. human rights?

This is one of the easiest considerations to clarify: noble or benign motives can be ruled out from the start. The failure to intervene – as well as active intervention to exacerbate and enable atrocities – in similar cases indicate that human rights do not motivate the perpetrators. Massacres are currently being visited on their people by US-supported regimes in Bahrain and Yemen. The US client state in Israel has launched indiscriminate attacks on Gaza in recent days, while a recent US drone strike in Pakistan killed at least 40 civilians. At the height of the protests sweeping the region, David Cameron accompanied arms dealers flogging their wares to despotic regimes across the Middle East, in the face of reports that many were using arms previously supplied by UK and Western companies. No intervention is currently being suggested in the case of the Ivory Coast’s escalating violence.

Perhaps the starkest example of rhetorical double-standards is the Israeli massacre of over a thousand Gazan civilians in 2008-9, for which the US provided arms and diplomatic cover. As journalist Howard Friel points out, Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice has continued to provide cover for Israeli crimes throughout 2009-10, including voting against a resolution “deploring those policies and practices of Israel that violate the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs of the occupied territories”.

It has recently come to light – via a senior diplomatic source speaking to Craig Murray, the UK’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan – that the current crackdown in Bahrain, assisted by Saudi troops, was given a green light by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In return, she secured the Arab League’s support for a no-fly zone in Libya.

ii. what we can rule in

If noble motives can be ruled out, what is the motive in the case of Libya? This is hard to pin down at present. Nevertheless, there are some obvious clues. The overall context is quite clear. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “[t]he overriding concern for control over oil has dominated British policy for a century and US policy for almost that long. Of course that will remain.”

Cambridge history scholar Ali Khan notes that “Libya is exceedingly important geo-strategically – it is on the southern borders of Europe – as well as economically – it supplies a large percentage of oil to many European as well as Asian countries.” In 2009, the business editor of the Independent on Sunday noted that oil-related issues of “national security coupled with energy scarcity and price” explain “why bringing Libya in from the cold was, and is, so crucial”. Accordingly, the Guardian reports, Chinese opposition to intevention “reflected genuine unease” about destabilising its major oil supplier. As Owen Jones comments,

“The planes dropping bombs over Libya are using Italian bases. Italy depends on Libya for a quarter of its oil. Do we really think Italy – which until very recently backed Gaddafi to the hilt because of this very reason – is acting without this in mind?”

As Gilbert Achcar of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies observes, Gaddafi was hardly considered hostile to the West, maintaining warm relations with commercial, political and strategic interests. Yet the problem now may be his increasing potential for independence. Chomsky cites the Wall Street Journal’s opinion that the West “hasn’t yet figured out how to control the new rising elements; the assumption is of course that we have to control them”. Gaddafi has now become increasingly isolated in the region and internationally, and the West may have figured that he is both dispensable and more trouble than he is worth. Several Guardian writers cite “analysis suggesting that if Gaddafi survived the revolt he would revert to his old anti-western, terrorism-sponsoring ways and become a real threat to US interests” as a major factor in prompting the decision for intervention.

SOAS lecturer in Middle Eastern politics Laleh Khalili comments that:

“The Europeans and North Americans were happy to cooperate with and support Qaddafi as long as he fought Al-Qa’ida (however brutally) and provided access to resources; but he has always proved unreliable and unpredictable and even at the height of the hugging-and-kissing times, the Europeans were wary of him. They would much rather have a regime in power that is more predictable and “stable”, even if it is as brutal as the Qaddafi regime.”

Media Lens cite one 2007 Wikileaks cable hinting in this direction – noting that:

“those who dominate Libya’s political and economic leadership are pursuing increasingly nationalistic policies in the energy sector that could jeopardize efficient exploitation of Libya’s extensive oil and gas reserves. …”

One oil and gas trade publication supports this – telling readers:

“Libya’s upstream had begun to lose some of its lustre before the onset of violence in the country, and even a swift end to the current rebellion presents risks to foreign operators in the North African state. … Ongoing violence in Libya has begun to raise questions about the way forward for international oil companies (IOCs) in the restive North African state. Operators face an uncertain future even if a swift end to violence sees the Qadhafi regime remain in power.”

According to the Middle East Reseach and Information Project, leaving the situation alone was beginning to look unappealing to Western interests:

“The balance of argument in the corridors of power was shifting to the judgment that neither Qaddafi nor the rebels would triumph: Rather, the most likely outcomes were a war of attrition or a partial regime reconquest bedevilled by a prolonged insurgency. … At the same time, the US was swinging to the view already held by France and other key European Union states: Such outcomes were intolerable, partly because oil flows might be interrupted, but more importantly because migrant flows might spike as Libya morphed into that Washington bugbear, the “failed state.”

The Financial Times has also noted the upward pressure on oil prices if Saudi production falls or “instability” spreads in the region. In the longer term, this threatens Western economic interests, as business reporter William Alden notes:

“If [oil] prices come back down after a short while, the impact on the U.S. economy is relatively limited,” said Gregory Daco, a senior economist in the U.S. macroeconomics group at IHS Global Insight, an economic and financial analysis firm. “However, if prices do stay at a higher level for six months to a year, the impact on growth can be relatively important.”

The prospect of a heavily embargoed regime remaining under Gaddafi’s control, as Achcar points out, may also be unappetising. The West, then, may have figured they can solve their problems here by ditching Gaddafi quickly.

Inside sources also make clear that elements of the Obama administration are keen to rehabilitate the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. Though it appeared to have been “killed for a generation” after Iraq, according to administration official Samantha Power (a prominent liberal hawk, and author of an influential book on the costs of the US’s failure to intervene) one major goal may be to ensure “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this”, as one administration official puts it. As one of these “rehabilitators” puts it, they are “praying that it works”.

2. Specific intended consequences

Despite the heavy rhetorical emphasis on protecting civilians, various voices from within the British and American Governments have made abundantly clear that regime change is an intended goal of this intervention. Military analysts, including some with high-level political and military experience, agree that this is undoubtedly the intention. According to Foreign Policy, Susan Rice’s “instructions” at the UN Security Council “were to get a resolution that would give the international community broad authority to achieve Qaddafi’s removal, including the use of force beyond the imposition of a no-fly zone.”

There are allegedly some moves being made to push Gaddafi into exile, and it has also been confirmed that Gaddafi’s personal compound was targeted by British air strikes some days ago. The vast amount of dissension and equivocation within official ranks likely reflects the legal “grey areas” surrounding this decision, as well as a lack of consensus on what military tactics to bring about Gaddafi’s removal are permissible, or desired. The UN authorises any “necessary measures” to protect civilians; but it is not clear that targeting the Libyan leadership can be stretched to meet even this deliberately expansive mandate.

While the UN resolution rules out an “occupation” force, the use of ground troops in Libya is still possible if the coalition choose not to define them as occupiers. Officials have refused to rule this out – and intervention in Haiti provides a precedent for exactly this course of action.

It also seems that the coalition has in practice taken sides. In particular, it has privately given a green light to Egypt to supply arms to the rebels, according to an official source who spoke to the Wall Street Journal – in contravention of the UN resolution. Meanwhile, the Guardian reports, “Downing Street is urgently trying to help organise the rebels into a more coherent and visible political and military force.”

3. Consequences, likely and risked

The initial consequences of intervention appear to have allowed the rebels to rebound against Gaddafi’s forces, producing something of a stalemate between rebels and Government forces, but with ongoing fighting, apparently including vicious bombardment and use of snipers by the Libyan Government. Insider sources have stated privately that the Libyan air force has effectively been obliterated.

i. the short-term: preventing massacres?

The key short-term ethical question is whether intervention prevented an imminent massacre in Benghazi and elsewhere. There is some evidence that this is the case. The Guardian’s Chris McGreal reports that “the air strikes have proved utterly decisive; on Saturday Gaddafi’s forces were fighting inside Benghazi, now they are defending Ajdabiya, 100 miles from the rebel stronghold. That is very much due to air power.” (MSNBC provides similar reports.)

Was a massacre imminent? The BBC reported on 13 March that Col. Gaddafi would “be self-deterred from ramping up airstrikes for fear of tipping the debate on a no-fly zone in favour of would-be interveners”. But air strikes (and artillery bombardment) did continue subsequently. As the Middle East Research and Information Project point out, “Both Qaddafi’s past and his near total international isolation at present bespeak a dictator who will indeed fight dirty to the bitter end.” Reports of indiscriminate artillery and air attacks and massacres of peaceful protesters already available tend to support this view. According to Amnesty International’s (generally cautious) report, there is:

“clear evidence of the use of lethal force against protesters in February and – more worrying still – that in many cases protesters who posed no threat were deliberately killed.

“It is clear that hundreds have died in Libya since unrest began.  This has included people deliberately killed, killed as a result of excessive or indiscriminate use of lethal force, those who were caught in the ongoing armed conflict, and as a result of human rights abuses.”

Benghazi was also clearly subject to indiscriminate and deliberate attacks, Amnesty report. Residents reported on widespread killings and disappearances elsewhere, which they feared would soon face them. Misrata too has faced massacres, and a grim humanitarian situation. There are also reports of the humanitarian crisis beginning to ease in some areas.

As the Libyan poet and scholar Khaled Mattawa points out:

“On the one day after the U.N. resolution had passed, Saturday, Gaddafi went into Benghazi and killed approximately 95 people and injured maybe twice or three times as that many people. Clearly, he is going to subdue these towns with bullets and fire. He is doing the same thing in Misurata.”

Seumas Milne, however, suggests this is implausible:

“In reality, for all the Libyan leader’s brutality and Saddam Hussein-style rhetoric, he was scarcely in any position to carry out his threat. … Given that his ramshackle forces were unable to fully retake towns like Misurata or even Ajdabiya when the rebels were on the back foot, the idea that they would have been able to overrun an armed and hostile city of 700,000 people any time soon seems far-fetched.”

There is some further evidence that things may be being exaggerated by the West. According to one journalist, talking in private to US Government officials:

“the president and some of his advisers are so eager to rehabilitate the idea of preventive intervention that they’re exaggerating the violence they say they are intervening to prevent in Libya. “The effort to shoe-horn this into an imminent genocide model is strained,” says one senior administration official.”

The account of Bradford security analyst Paul Rogers, however, suggests not only that the “Libyan government already has sufficient weaponry to defeat the rebels and keep control of the country” but that “military intervention of some form seems the only immediate means by which to influence the course of events in Libya”:

“The use of aerial firepower has already led to, and will certainly lead to more, large scale loss of civilian life. This gives the international community a humanitarian imperative to intervene.”

The Middle East Research and Information Project appears to concur: “It seems certain that, absent outside help,” they conclude, “armed insurrection would have been doomed to sputter amidst the colonel’s bloody reprisals.”

ii. civilian casualties

The West’s record is certainly worth bearing in mind in considering the level of direct civilian casualties we can expect from their airstrikes. Heavy and indiscriminate air attacks – such as those on Fallujah – are possible if the conflict continues, but it is certainly not clear whether such an escalation is seen as likely or desirable at this point. The 1999 campaign against Serbia is a more likely model, although given that that campaign ultimately resulted in many hundreds of deaths, as well as the targeting of civilian infrastructure, this is hardly something to celebrate.

Casualty reports are currently difficult to come by, most deriving from unreliable Libyan Government sources. However, there is some evidence that, as ever, mounting direct civilian casualties will be increasingly likely as the conflict goes on. None of the first 50 “precision” strikes of the Iraq war hit their targets. Craig Murray points to evidence of the use of imprecise weapons and attacks that amount to carpet-bombing:

“During the initial phase of the war in Iraq, stray US missiles aimed at Iraq hit Kuwait, Turkey and Syria. … Two nights ago, 118 Tomahawk missiles were aimed at 20 targets. These things are extremely destructive. We know that some of the targets were radar installations and SAM missile sites. These are not extensive. Airfields would need more, but the fact that 118 extremely expensive missiles were fired at just 20 targets undoubtedly includes a large measure of redundancy, precisely because the military know very well that some of them will miss.”

The MOD has verified that a British submarine launched the attack on Gaddafi’s compound, which contained 300 of his supporters at the time. This shows every sign of being an indiscriminate attack on non-combatants – not only unauthorised by the UN resolution covering the Libyan action, but a war crime.

It is now clear that 8 people were injured by gunfire when going to the aid of the pilot of a downed US aircraft – suggesting that a degree of recklessness is being applied in targeting choices. The New York Times also recently reported how “[a]long a two-way road, with brutal efficiency, allied warplanes bombed tanks, missile launchers and civilian cars, leaving a smoldering trail of wreckage that stretched for miles.”

The prospect that these kind of attacks can continue for long – or be stepped up – without mounting civilian casualties seems vanishingly unlikely.

iii. playing into Gaddafi’s hands?

Some suggestions have also been made that Gaddafi will be able to capitalise on Western intervention by casting this as a colonial war, and the rebels as Western proxies. How significant this effect has been is virtually impossible to discern.

iv. long-term: regime change?

What happens to Libya in the long term is a much more difficult question. It is not clear that even Western officials have a clear idea. As the Guardian reported on 23 March,

“The US defence secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged thar there is no clear end to the international military enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya [and] could not say how the coalition operation might be resolved … “I think there are any number of possible outcomes here and no one is in a position to predict them,” Gates told reporters in Egypt.”

As one journalist reports of discussions with Obama administration insiders:

“Obama and his aides know they are taking a big risk. “It’s a huge gamble,” says [one] senior administration official.”

If the implosion of the regime and the exit of Gaddafi is secured, what succeeds him? “No obvious successors or opposition movements are waiting to take over Libya if Muammar Qadhafi is forced from power after four decades in which political dissent was crushed and society atomised”, The Hindu notes. Given that regime change seems to be the goal, the possibility that it will be former regime insiders or Western puppets (possibly from the Libyan diaspora) or both, is not only entirely plausible but likely. As the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn notes,

“The local leaders who rise to the top in these circumstances are usually those who speak the best English and get on with the US and its allies. In Baghdad and Kabul those who initially rose were those who fawned the most and who were prepared to go before Congress to express fulsome gratitude for America’s actions.”

As MERIP comment,

“these elements are sure to be heavier on opportunism than on popular legitimacy. This Libya would look nothing like the democratic state of liberal interventionist dreams, and quite a bit like post-Saddam Iraq.”

If the regime digs in its heels, however, given the relative weakness of the rebels and the current limits of Western involvement, it is entirely plausible a long, protracted and bloody conflict would surely precede any such outcome, without – or indeed with – the deployment of Western ground troops. Given the apparent reticence within parts of the Western coalition about intervening in the first place, though, it is arguably – and hopefully – highly unlikely that this option would be pursued. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reportedly told US Army cadets that “anybody who again proposes sending large US ground forces into action in Asia or the Middle East needs to have their head examined.” Nevertheless, as noted, Western officials have not taken the possibility of a ground invasion off the table.

v. partition?

If the balance of forces remains in the stalemate it seems to have reached, a partition between the East and West of the country could be likely, possibly accompanied by a demilitarised buffer zone and continuing no-fly zone. This carries some serious risks of its own, however. It would be deeply unpopular on both sides, potentially galvanising support for Gaddafi. As Mattawa suggests, partition is

“exactly what Gaddafi is counting on. Right now, Gaddafi is telling the people of the West that it’s an eastern conspiracy and so forth. So Gaddafi wants this division because it will give him a part of the country. The rest of the Libyan population does not wish it, and I’m sure the Transitional National Council does not wish it and wants to reunite the country.”

Given their professed commitment to deposing Gaddafi, it is also not clear if this is seen as a desirable situation for the West except as a temporary measure – though it is entirely possible to maintain for years, as 1990s Iraq demonstrated.

Rebels might very well not acquiesce in such a division either. As Archie Bland points out in the Independent, insurgent towns in the West falling on the wrong side of the line would be vulnerable to Gaddafi’s reprisals. If Ajdabiyah had not fallen to the rebels prior to any partition, Benghazi would be cut off from the irrigation systems supplying it with water. Tensions over oil supplies would rise. As such it is not clear a de facto partition would be tenable. Nevertheless, as UCLA Professor of International Law Asli Bali puts it,

“if the strategy continues that we’re seeing now, and we do in fact continue the no-fly zone and insist on a ceasefire line, which is what the Security Council authorizes, the resolution authorizes, it’s hard to know what other result would come other than a partition at this point.”

vi. protracted civil war?

As MERIP suggested in a recent report, the momentum appeared to have largely petered out of the disorganised rebellion prior to the beginning of Western attacks. Intervention may have kick-started it again, potentially resulting in a protracted conflict. Equally, this could well have been the result of refraining from intervention, albeit as a conflict evolving along different (probably asymmetrical) lines. According to MERIP, this was a possibility the Obama administration had come to consider increasingly likely. As one former Tripoli-based Diplomat puts it:

“Libya is a special case. In other countries — Egypt, Jordan or Bahrain — you can construct scenarios about what might happen after an uprising. In Libya you can see only instability, chaos and violence.”

In either eventuality, Libya could become an “incubator” for jihadist terrorism – which would be exacerbated by the visibility of Western intervention – quite apart from the human suffering that would result. Insiders report that the administration is well aware intervention may make things worse in this regard.

vii. regional implications

Hillary Clinton’s quid-pro-quo with the Arab League already means that the UN resolution on Libya has gone ahead at the cost of Bahrainian lives, and potentially of the possibility of any serious possibility of democratic reform in Bahrain. Already it is becoming clear that the intensive media focus on Libya in the wake of intervention may be providing cover for an escalation of atrocities and repression by other states in the region. As Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch observes, coverage of Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia and Egypt has receded. Rather than protecting the “Arab Spring”, as the Institute for Policy Studies’ Phyllis Bennis notes, intervention in Libya coincided with an escalation of its repression. It is clear that this is in part deliberate.

Apart from this, the question of how this intervention affects the “Arab Spring” more broadly is open to question. The bad example of Western bombings, it has been argued, may be a check on further democratic uprisings across the region. But the same may be said at least as strongly about allowing Gaddafi to crush the rebellion.

viii. wider implications

The possibility that this conflict will rehabilitate “humanitarian intervention” as an acceptable tactic in international affairs is quite real; indeed the process has already begun. Champions of liberal interventionism are indulging in a fit of triumphalism”, as Paul Miller writes in Foreign Policy. Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth in particular is jubilant, seeing this as an opportunity to extend the license granted by the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” everywhere.

Given that “humanitarian interventionist” arguments were a central plank of the case for war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, in these terms the potential fallout from this campaign could be atrocious. Perversely, the more benign the effects of this intervention in Libya, the worse this legitimising effect is likely to be.

At least as troubling are the potential implications for proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As Stephen Walt observes in Foreign Policy,

“Obama … has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation’s security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: ‘Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?’

4. Consent of the victims?

Overwhelmingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) it has been reported that Libyan sources are in favour of the imposition of a no-fly zone, while opposing a ground invasion. Much of the support and many calls for intervention have come from rebel sources. Yet it is often unclear exactly who the rebels represent: arguably there are broad tribal divisions between the East and West of the country at play, though some credible sources strongly contest that this plays much of a role. The rebels appear to be a ramshackle, ad-hoc alliance of various secular and possibly some marginal Islamist forces, many defectors, often with no clear leadership, often fronted by former Gaddafi regime insiders and some figures close to the West.

Robert Fisk notes the prominence of the Senoussi group of tribal families in the rebellion (the rebel flag is a Senoussi flag), and questions whether Gaddafi’s support base would likely continue the civil war if this group became dominant.

Aijaz Ahmad stresses that support for Gaddafi is not negligible:

“People only from one side are being interviewed and projected and none from the other side [but] Gaddafi’s support is far beyond his own tribe. There is a whole conglomeration of tribes, there’s a class of people, their institutional strengths, and so on. I think there is very considerable strength in the regime, at the core of the regime. It goes far beyond his tribe, the civil support for him goes far beyond them.”

This is contested by Khaled Mattawa, however:

“There is some support for Gaddafi. The problem is that the supporters of Gaddafi, who, in political sentiment, may amount to up to 15 percent of the population … a great number of them are involved in the current killings. … The challenge is if Gaddafi were ever willing to have a national question or a debate about his legitimacy. He would never allow this. He would lose by a wide margin.”

Michigan Professor of Middle East history Juan Cole too argues strongly against this idea. As he suggests:

“The Libyan people had risen up and thrown off the Qaddafi regime, with some 80-90 percent of the country having gone out of his hands before he started having tank commanders fire shells into peaceful crowds. It was this vast majority of the Libyan people that demanded the UN no-fly zone.”

The turn against Gaddafi by a wide array of tribal groupings earlier on suggests that this account is basically accurate. Much of the current division between East and West has been a creation of patterns of patronage on the part of the Gaddafi regime; but these divisions are not necessarily stark, and are qualified by widespread miscegenation.

Nevertheless, as political scientist at Georgetown University Paul Sullivan told the New York Times, who the rebels are “is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer. It could be a very big surprise when Qaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.” Already there are reports of widespread abuses, with “Human Rights Watch [describing] a concerted campaign in which thousands of men have been driven from their homes in eastern Libya and beaten or arrested”. If the rebels were to gain the upper hand, we could witness the kind of wide-scale reprisals committed by the KLA in the wake of the Serbian conflict.

5. Legality

In terms of international law, the UN Security Council resolution obtained by the pro-interventionist powers is so broad that it can be used to publicly justify a broad range of activities, including land invasions. This could even – at a stretch – include attacks on the Libyan leadership, if these can be construed as “necessary measures” to protect civilians. Thus far, though, it is abundantly clear that, as legal professor Marjorie Cohn points out, “[t]he military action taken exceeds the bounds of the “all necessary measures” authorization.” The professed aim of regime change in particular indicates a blatant violation of the resolution.

The very legitimacy of the resolution itself is also questionable: as Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies notes, the abstentions of nations opposed to the intervention (Russia, China, Brazil, Germany and India all abstained) and vote in favour by South Africa raise “some very serious questions here about what kind of pressure might have been brought to bear on those governments to arrange that kind of a vote.”

A Presidential authorization of this attack is also undeniably unconstitutional – as Obama has himself unambiguously acknowledged when discussing the topic of Iran. As Yale Professors of law and politcal science Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway note, Obama also explicitly retracted Bush administration’s claims to this kind of executive authority on entering the White House. As such, he is “consolidating one of the worst aspects of the Bush era, and set[ting] a precedent for further abuses by future presidents.” As Robert Naiman summed up the potential implications of setting such a precedent:

“if President Obama can bomb Libya without Congressional authorization, then President Palin can bomb Iran without Congressional authorization. If, God forbid, we ever get to that fork in the road, you can bet your bottom dollar that the advocates of bombing Iran will invoke Congressional silence now as justification for their claims of unilateral presidential authority to bomb anywhere, anytime.”

6. How much can we control?

This is potentially a rhetorical question, but also a serious one. As Harold Pinter put it “When they said “We had to do something,” I said: “… First of all: “Who is the ‘we’?””

As Joe Emersberger writes:

“We - who want civilized polices - do not control our governments. With considerable effort, we can influence what our governments do internationally; limit some of their destructiveness (like prevent Vietnam from being nuked or Iraq from being bombed even more heavily). That kind of influence is not to be dismissed but must not be exaggerated either. Influence is not control. In fact, we don’t even have control of our governments at home, much less abroad.”

Our power, then, is a small, blunt instrument. At certain times, however, it may prove decisive in producing political “tipping points”. While we cannot compel intervention elsewhere, here it is already underway. We have some limited powers: to support, acquiesce, rein in or (more hypothetically) block.

There is no clear public support among the UK public for the intervention in Libya – apparently unusual at this stage in a conflict – while YouGov report “a majority of Britons distrusts their government’s motives”, suggesting the “Iraq syndrome” lingers. Any support is likely to diminish with protracted involvement, representing a possible avenue of influence. Astonishing levels of support among the political class, however, may represent a more fundamental barrier: 557 MPs voted for war, 13 against.

7. How much do we really know?

As with the motives behind the Serbia and Iraq wars – later exposed by insiders’ accounts – Media Lens suggest:

“We suspect the real reasons … are not being discussed and will surface later, perhaps in someone’s autobiography.”

The media has misled, cheerled, and constantly reinforced the myth of the West’s “basic benevolence”. In this climate it is difficult to know what the facts of the case are. In this light, opposition to overseas wars may be a useful “rule of thumb” – limiting harm across the board if applied as a general rule.

8. Last resort questions

i. diplomatic options

The status of various possible “last resorts” is complicated both by the possible urgency of the situation on the ground, and the strong evidence that the ceasefire initially declared by Gaddafi was bogus. Nevertheless, various openings appear to have been missed or simply declined. Three weeks ago, Foreign Policy notes, Gaddafi “reportedly offered to leave if guaranteed impunity and the family riches but was quickly rebuffed by over-confident rebels.” Placing pressure on the rebels to take such opportunities may thus represent one alternative course of action.

South African President Jacob Zuma, the Guardian reports, “was part of an African Union delegation that was about to travel to Libya to help mediate an end to the conflict when the bombing started. The mission was cancelled.” Again, however, the question of whether such measures would effectively provide sufficient delay to allow Gaddafi to consolidate his position remains open. As Khaled Mattawa puts it:

“the African Union is pretty much a Muammar Gaddafi organization. Yes, they have not bent to his will all the time, but clearly a lot of these countries are—have made—are indebted to him. … to insist upon it as if it’s an organization with any teeth or that it has a lot of moral weight behind it, is really a questionable thing.”

Similar questions apply to Gaddafi’s initial offers to the UN, Germany and Malta to monitor its declared “ceasefire” – the latter showing willing to do so, under UN auspices – while bombing was ongoing.

Nevertheless, the UN Security Council decision to “[turn] down a Libyan request for a special meeting to discuss Western air strikes” on 21 March is extraordinary: an unambiguous gesture of diplomatic stonewalling, for which there is surely no conceivable justification when bombing of the country is ongoing.

There are also perverse incentives embedded in the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1970 in the referral of Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court, which makes it virtually impossible for him to go into exile voluntarily. This decision could be revoked. There are already some reports of back-channel communications with the goal of Gaddafi’s exile in mind, though it is unclear how credible these are.

As the International Crisis Group commented on 10 March, before force is used “diplomatic options must first be exhausted. They have not even begun.” Indeed it looks entirely possible they have been avoided.

ii. non-violent measures

Besides the negotiating table, more assertive peaceful measures are available, including formal recognition and arming of the rebels; releasing frozen Libyan Government assets to them; tighter targeted sanctions; and isolation of the regime. Former diplomat Carne Ross suggests a number of non-violent measures, such as an escrow account for Libyan oil revenues, to be redirected to rebels, humanitarian aid and any future representative Government – though Ross’s “suspicion is that [Governments] are not discussing this for fear of the effect on oil prices”; imposing broader sanctions on the regime; pressuring companies to cut ties; air and naval blockades; jamming of communications; supplying rebels with information; substantial humanitarian support to rebel-held areas; and further sanctions on finance. David Miliband has suggested “efforts to support the ability of the Libyan opposition to communicate with each other”; “safe haven[s] for defectors and their families”; “arms embargos and financial pressure”; and “cutting off the supply of African mercenaries.”

As Marjorie Cohn comments:

“It is only when peaceful means have been tried and proved inadequate that the Security Council can authorize action under Chapter VII of the Charter. That action includes boycotts, embargoes, severance of diplomatic relations, and even blockades or operations by air, sea or land.”

Nevertheless, as Paul Rogers suggests, it is doubtful these measures could have been decisive in protecting areas threatened by a Libyan Government onslaught.

9. Minimum necessary violence

As already noted, coalition violence currently extends well beyond legality and proportionality, and is increasingly likely to risk civilian life as the conflict continues. It is at best deeply questionable whether the bombing of Libyan communication centres, obliterating civilian cars or “hit[ting] a lot of targets … focus[ing] on command and control”, as Admiral Mullen described coalition actions to Fox News, represents a “necessary measure” to protect civilian life or enforce a no-fly zone.

10. Opportunity costs

The Independent notes that the UK is spending an estimated £3 million pounds a day on this conflict, probably reaching £100 million within four to six weeks. Each cruise missile fired costs around £500,000, keeping aircraft in the air between £35,000 and £70,000 an hour. Overall, the cost of the first day’s attacks was “well over $1oo million”, according to the National Journal, with initial attacks on Libyan air defences costing “between $400 million and 800 million”.

Arguably, the money spent on a Libyan war – “under conditions where politicians and the media endlessly declare that the government has no money and schools must be shut down, teachers fired, vital social programs drastically curtailed and the wages, pensions and health coverage of public employees slashed” – could be better spent on desperately-needed humanitarian relief for regions of dire poverty, or on the provision of services domestically: “disability living allowance, higher education, rape crisis centres or libraries”.

This is a strong moral argument, but potentially runs aground on the question of our limited control over this policy. Though preventing this conflict might leave more public money available, it is highly doubtful we have the power to redirect such resources in preferred ways.


The more information accrues on this topic, the worse the likely results of intervention can often seem. The motives of the perpetrators are tainted all the way down, and their track record is appalling.

In the long-term, it is in no way clear that we will not make the situation worse. A swift, voluntary exit by Gaddafi is surely a desirable outcome; but the prospects of this happening are basically unknown, and surely unlikely if his referral to the ICC remains in place. Regime change by force seems unlikely without the (thankfully unlikely) prospect of wider intervention, along the lines of Afghanistan or Iraq. Moreover, what would replace Gaddafi? A destabilising power vacuum, or a “reliable autocracy”?

Failing this, the most optimistic scenario that currently seems plausible is a country divided by an East-West ceasefire line. This would at least stop the killing, and hopefully allow for humanitarian relief efforts. Even here, though, the prospects are potentially not great, and problems are many: neither side seems trustworthy or has clean hands, with further widespread reprisals and abuse on both sides a real possibility. That’s if the division is tenable at all. The potential to re-ignite a protracted civil war is real, and grim. Western intervention might be exploited by Gaddafi, or catalyse the formation of jihadist cells in a barely-governed state. Direct civilian casualty rates are unknown, but appear not to have been huge so far; nevertheless, they are likely to mount as the campaign goes on. Targeting decisions have already far exceeded the legal obligation to apply minimum necessary force.

Regionally, the assault is already providing cover for the repression of the “Arab Spring” – as (at least partly) intended. More widely, this could help rehabilitate “humanitarian” imperialism and proliferate weapons of mass destruction. The attacks have already added to some alarming legal precedents, violating and seriously undermining the US constitution domestically, and breaking international law. Various diplomatic openings were closed by the attacks, or were simply refused; and a range of non-violent measures were left untried – in contravention of the UN Charter. These may not have prevented massacres in the short-term. But given the potential long-term human costs of intervention it is surely unacceptable that they were not vigorously pursued. More troublingly, why did the UN Security Council refuse to grant Libya’s request for a special meeting on the attacks – a move that would have incurred no costs whatsoever?

The case for war, then, while plausible, seems astonishingly risky. Even Obama administration officials acknowledge they are “gambl[ing]”, with no idea of the likely outcome. To that we must add the massive risks the involvement of our own Governments brings to the table. Arguably there is much here to weight the balance against war, particularly if – as many would argue it must be – non-intervention is accepted as a default position.

Against this, however, must be weighed the likely costs of non-intervention. The pro-intervention case at its strongest rests on the premise that the situation is already sufficiently atrocious that the choice is between the certainty of an appalling outcome and the possibility of its mitigation. In the short-term (notwithstanding some disagreement) it seems very likely we have prevented massacres, with the backing of the Libyan people. A protracted insurgency in a loosely held-together state with Gaddafi still in place, allowing for the incubation of jihadist terrorism and no doubt with widespread repression are all still entirely plausible longer-term possibilities in the absence of intervention. Measures to crush the “Arab Spring” would in all probability have continued in any case, and it is unclear how far this will add to the already ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Preventing possible victories for powerful Western interests in the legal and rhetorical domains they already dominate is undoubtedly a heavy trade-off for those paying with their lives. But the possibility that others will pay tenfold down the line cannot be so easily dismissed. Ultimately, the massive levels of risk and uncertainty bound up in this issue – as well as the different benchmarks it involves – are precisely what make it as intractable as it seems to be.

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