Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Libyan Tragedy

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

Stalemate seems to be the word most commonly circulated these days to describe the civil war in Libya. Kaddafi remains in power, however tenuously; the resistance continues to fight the good fight, however disorganized and outgunned it may be. Neither side apparently possesses the ability to defeat the other, a situation that could drag on indefinitely. Thus, Libya and its citizens will absorb the vast majority of the death, destruction, and suffering the war inflicts. Here it is important to remember that if not for outside military intervention, Libyan opposition forces would have been crushed weeks ago. Intervention prevented Kaddafi from doing his absolute worst, as he threatened to hunt down and kill opponents in their homes, including their closets. It has also led to the stalemate currently deemed not just problematic but unacceptable, even intolerable. Barack Obama and other Western leaders declare that Kaddafi’s rule must end, but they seem blind to the tragic situation they have created and thus incapable of negotiating it successfully.

Measures required to break the impasse provoke controversy insofar as they mean escalation. The controversy, moreover, can be traced to the nature of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorizing action in Libya: the establishment of a no-fly zone and the resort to “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. Thereafter, the United States and NATO decided not to deploy ground troops. Western-led military intervention would thus protect civilians from Kaddafi’s onslaughts, tantamount to crimes against humanity, but it would not put an end to his rule. This was for the Libyans themselves to achieve.

Such “limited” intervention would also allow the United States and its NATO partners to maintain the appearance of neutrality. They thus sought to implement a UNSC mandate to protect Libyan civilians from harm, a realization of the responsibility to protect doctrine which normally falls to sovereign states but which the international community, should the necessity arise, can assume. The idea seems to be that intervention, under certain circumstances, does not violate but actually fulfills sacred sovereign principles.

Critics of intervention argue that military action amounted to taking sides in a civil war, that is, unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Proponents denied this, but their denials lacked conviction and should not have been made. There was no moral or legal equivalence, the intimations of critics notwithstanding. What’s more, humanitarian war can pursue regime change if and when the transgressions that justified intervention (the slaughter or impending slaughter of civilians, for example) would resume once the intervention had concluded and interventionist forces had exited the country in question. If there were any doubt about such an outcome prior to intervention in Libya, intervention itself erased it. Kaddafi was clear about the consequences of action: a long war. He has kept his word and Libya and Libyans have been paying a heavy price for his fidelity.

Kaddafi’s intransigence, it should be said, is by no means exceptional. Governments that suppress, attack, and kill their own citizens in mass numbers may call a halt (or be forced to call a halt) to atrocities when confronted with superior force or the threat thereof, but to believe, let alone assume, that such governments can subsequently be trusted to treat their citizens with all respect due to them borders on the absurd. United States and NATO intervention changed the course of Libya’s insurrection: it prevented a Kaddafi victory and enabled a de facto civil war. Kaddafi’s outrights defeat would have required a much greater intervention, but this was formally ruled out in advance. Thus the current stalemate is the perfection of humanitarian war executed on the cheap. Such warfare may be prosecuted in truncated fashion to secure international support, guarantee domestic support, and preempt undue criticism, but it also guarantees an (ultimately) infelicitous combination of success and failure.

Intervention led by the United States and its NATO partners is complicated by the history of colonialism in the region. The American war in Iraq was patently illegal and the United States has not been held to account. The American war in Afghanistan may have been morally and legally justifiable at the outset, but the Bush regime abandoned it to wage the gratuitous war in Iraq. More importantly, the Afghan war against al Qaeda morphed long ago into a war against the Taliban, for which the United States enjoys no mandate, certainly not with al Qaeda rendered irrelevant years ago. The unseemly glee of Obama and the American public over the presidentially-ordered murder of Osama bin Laden cannot redeem the broader Afghan failure of the past ten years. As for the British and French, they own their own nasty colonial legacies in northern Africa. Still, a deeply problematic history does not automatically delegitimize an intervention sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, the Arab League, the African Union, and Libyan opposition forces themselves.

Humanitarian war in Libya faces two challenges. First, Kaddafi must be removed from power. If he isn’t, the intervention discredits itself. This is not to deny that his removal will necessarily entail the exercise of sustained violence. Death on a large scale is guaranteed, including the killing of the very civilians intervention aims to protect, as well as other non-combatants, including members of Kaddafi’s family. Here humanitarian war reveals itself to be a tragic undertaking, simultaneously realizing and defeating its stated goals and values. Second, assuming Kaddafi’s removal, what happens in the aftermath? What kind of regime replaces Kaddafi’s? This cannot be known before the fact, or certainly not with any confidence. Many argue that in the absence of such knowledge intervention should not even be considered because action that makes matters worse defeats itself. Here humanitarian war resembles a (re)founding, a project which may or may not succeed. But if there is no way to predict, let alone guarantee success in advance, how can mere uncertainty derail the very effort that might lead to success?

Humanitarian intervention is a roll of the dice. It is creative destruction at once necessary, precarious, and uncertain. Machiavelli’s advice about the ruthless deployment of military force in The Prince seems apt here. Maximize violence in the short run in order to minimize it in the long run. And this is precisely the task intervention does not assume. A more serious sustained conversation about the moral dilemmas inherent in humanitarian intervention needed to take place beforehand. The international community knew the potential problematic costs of action, but it focused instead on the imperative of saving as many lives as possible as quickly as possible. Insofar as “mission creep” was all too predictable as a necessary outcome of intervention, the International community, but especially the United States and NATO, now has the obligation to finish what it started, which means deploying whatever resources are required to help the Libyans finish what they started. This obligation was implicit in the original intervention, the “limited” terms of intervention notwithstanding. Fulfillment of this obligation would bring an end to Kaddafi’s reign and allow the second act of the Libyan drama to unfold. It’s already a tragedy in the making, which does not preclude by itself an unfavorable outcome. The question is: will it also become a farce? If Kaddafi remains in power or Libya is partitioned, the answer would be yes. If Kaddafi is removed from power, the answer would be no, not necessarily, which is the best that can be said in a tragedy.

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