Intervention in Libya? A case of shooting slowly from the hip

Only ten days ago, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron put up the flag for a no-fly zone over Libya, nobody saluted. Now the British and French are drafting a UN Security Council Resolution. After all, you cannot just sit and watch the dictator wield overhwelming force so he and his disgusting son can hang onto power and not think something should be done to stop him.

True enough – but you should think very, very carefully about what can and should be done.


I fear that the western powers are slowly reaching out to press the default button. In this sort of case, that means help the victims, use a bit of force to hold the bad people in check, and find a winner to back. 

It’s a sort of slow motion shooting from the hip. It’s almost instinctive but it’s also hesitant.

In part, that’s because of the fear of repeating Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Iraq the first time round. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that anybody who again proposes sending large US ground forces into action in Asia or the Middle East needs to have their head examined (he said it to US Army cadets too, which makes it official).

Of course, enforcing a no-fly zone does not entail a large ground force intervention but there is something called a slippery slope and we’ve been on it before. For a decade before US forces finally invaded Iraq in 2003, there was a no-fly zone over both southern and northern Iraq. Both zones were initially imposed to protect the people from the viciousness of Saddam Hussein’s response to popular uprising.

It is extraordinary and unsettling how much precedent there is.

Western leaders may have to make ringing endorsements about where things are headed in Afghanistan but everybody knows that western policy is not in a confident place right now.

drive-by Intervention?

Fear of large scale intervention combined with the urge to do something, even without clarity about exactly what, raises the possibility of drive-by intervention, as a participant in a conference I was at last week neatly called it. And one of the things that the term so neatly captures with its mockingly flip tone is that the idea of painless intervention is a myth.

To enforce a no-fly zone you need air power, satellites and look-down radar. You will get into combat and it is likely some of that will be over Libyan soil. Which leads to the all too likely prospect of at least one shoot-down by Libyan air defence, which in turn means captured air crew displayed for the media.

With that, following the playbook Saddam Hussein wrote up, Qaddafi can simultaneously pull out a few emotional stops at the expense of the intervening powers and show the Arab ‘street’ that he is an authentic national leader resisting yet another round of foreign intervention in Arab affairs.

Alternatively, of course, in the effort to avoid that, imposing a no-fly zone would mean destroying Libyan air defences including radar with relatively widespread attacks, risking unintended damage and casualties among Libyans.

The Myagi principle

It is hardly surprising that, faced by Qaddafi’s air power, the Libyan opposition has come out in favour of the no-fly zone. But it is extremely unlikely that what they want is a drive-by intervention. If no-fly doesn’t work, they are almost certainly hoping the West will take another step down the intervention slope.

But there’s a problem. Can the West’s commitment be relied on?

I hope I will not be thought flippant if I express my point by reference to Mr Myagi, the mentor in the film Karate Kid. For one big lesson in the brief history of what has come to be called (and sometimes derided as) ‘humanitarian intervention’ is the lesson of life that Mr Myagi teaches his pupil, Daniel.

Paraphrased, what Mr Myagi says is, Do karate or don’t do it, but don’t half do it.

So with intervention, do it or don’t do it, but above all don’t pretend there is a cheap and easy version. Because all too often, intervention light is either the top of the slippery slope or an ineffective gesture that serves only to worsen the autocrat’s eventual vengeance. If you are going to do it, be prepared to go the whole way.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, in the light of what Defense Secretary Gates has said, knowing what we know about political realities and uncertainties in the US and Europe, just how likely is it that the West will respect the Myagi principle? 

Arguments for and against

So what are the main arguments for and against forceful intervention in Libya?

For, I think there are three basic ones:

  • Humanitarian: to care for the victims of the current fighting, and in longer perspective to end the suffering of Libyans under the dictator.
  • Democratic: to support Libyans who want to make a better life for themselves.
  • Power: to re-stabilise the global oil economy, get a western-leaning leader installed, and make a generally impressive display of western power.

In political discourse, these motives get served up in various blends, sometimes with one being used to mask another, but all are present.

Against, I see five basic ones:

  • Risk aversion: seeing a no-fly zone as the first step towards a large scale intervention, with human and economic costs that are much too high, and which the risk averse think may well fail anyway.
  • Lack of capacity: because it seems we don’t know how to do it; even a small mission with a couple of helicopters goes wrong and ends up with British Special Forces arrested by farm guards in the middle of the night.
  • Moral objection to the use of force, even in a good cause: too much can go wrong and too much harm can be done.
  • Passivity on the basis that the affairs of other countries are no business of ours in any case; let them get on with it.
  • Sovereignty: Libya is a sovereign state and whatever we do must be constrained by that simple if often inconvenient fact.

Again, these objections can be served up in different mixes and the most actively articulated objection may not always be the most deeply felt one.

Two core issues

Two separate if related core issues are at stake here. One of them is the question of sovereignty and politics, to which I will return in my next post. This encompasses the second and third of the arguments in favour of intervention (support democracy and exert power) and the fifth argument against (don’t intervene in sovereign states’ affairs).

There is also the moral argument around the use of force, encompassing the humanitarian and democratic arguments deployed in favour of intervention balanced against risk aversion and moral objections. For those who are not completely pacifist in their approach to this kind of question, there are always dilemmas and case-by-case uncertainties to sort out.

The samuel johnson principle

Although each case differs from the next, however, there are some general principles that can be referenced, even by those of us who exist in the moral grey zone where force is not always wholly bad. The most important may be the precautionary principles of the Just War tradition: only use force as a last resort, be sure success is likely, and do not do so much damage that it outweighs the good in the intended outcome.

Last resort is the starting point of this argument. It is a long established moral principle and a couple of hundred years ago, Samuel Johnson expressed it rather well:

“He may be justly hunted down, as the enemy of mankind, that can choose to snatch, by violence and bloodshed, what gentler means can equally obtain.”

Johnson + Myagi

Add Myagi and Johnson together and the conclusion that emerges is along the lines of, Don’t use force unless you absolutely have no alternative, and then do it properly.

Or: Don’t opt prematurely to use a military instrument that is a long way short of certain to get the job done.

 Which is what western leaders seem now to be doing.

With the added risk that, by reaching so slowly for the hip, they are giving Qaddafi ample warning of what might be coming at him, so he will pour on the pressure to get the action over before intervention is ready, and will himself be very ready if and when the intervention starts.

It is not a pleasant prospect.

7 thoughts on “Intervention in Libya? A case of shooting slowly from the hip

  1. I am grateful to Dan Smith for setting out the arguments so clearly. I am one of those pacifist he refers to but clearly see the dilemma posed by non-intervention in a situation where people are suffering. There are other things western powers could do: economic sanctions against rulers who make their people suffer is a start; however, such sanctions have to be effective and that means quick; not engaging in business deals with them in the first place would have been a start – that might be too late to say with reference to North Africa; but even at the same time as we wring our hands about what to do in Libya, the EU is talking trade relationships with Turkmenistan – another heaven of democracy (?). Why don’t we ever learn from our mistakes.
    The second thing that western powers can do in a situation when people are faced with immediate danger because they are struggling for democracy and human rights is to give them a safe heaven quickly; open borders and let them in and treat them like human beings who need help rather than sticking them in refugee camps and detention centres; surely we can do better than that.
    And finally, western powers can reflect on what their approach to other governments who oppress their own people and others says about our western commitment to democracy and human rights. If the US and the EU and its Member States do not address their relationship with countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, they will continue to give a mixed message to everyone.
    Violence will never achieve peace, whoever engages in it.

  2. “Violence will never achieve peace, whoever engages in it” – could you say that about the UK’s intervention in Sierra Leone?

    Surely intervention, guided by humanitarian principles, and backed up afterwards by strong measures to build positive peace, equitable growth and human security is at least a model worth considering in the face of overwhelming evidence of a regime engaged in mass killings on its own population.

    To retreat to an exclusively pacifist mantra could be said to be a bit of a cop out.

    That said, I don’t disagree with any of Martina’s longer term points about a more enlightened and ethical foreign policy approach to other states. Robin Cook tried it once, but the mandarins of Whitehall defeated him.

  3. Thanks dan. Thoughtful.
    See here for my [different] view: My new piece on OPEN DEMOCRACY, on this topic…
    The ‘passivity’ argument is no good, Dan – in part because of the responsibility to protect, and in part because there are already internationals there – mercenaries…
    The ‘sovereignty’ argument is also no good – because the Transitional National Council is calling for assistance, and it is the caretaker government in waiting.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Rupert, but while your oD piece is a very well argued plea to people not to be trapped by recent history into rejecting any form of intervention, you’ve only added to the unsettling accumulation of precedents. There was, after all, a “government in waiting” in the case of Iraq as well and in the Kurdish region in the north, it was more than “in waiting” – there was effective self-government.

  5. These are difficult and serious matters about which no one has a monopoly of virtue or knowledge. I have four comments on what you have said Dan.
    (i) You neglect one key argument for intervention, refugees. The defeat of the Libyan opposition would lead to a large number of refugees; the defeat of the regime may do the same.
    (ii) Two political matters are of decisive import, namely, what the Libyan opposition want, and what the neighboring (that’s the US spelling) states want. As regards the opposition, it is not yet a unitary actor, so EU foreign policy should do what it can to engender inclusive organization and representation of the Libyan opposition, and work with them on feasible options. In the Arab-majority neighborhood there is an uncertain transitional regime in place in Egypt, and also in Tunisia, while the successors of the “eliminationist” regime in Algeria still cling to power. To the south there is Niger, the usually unstable Chad – and Sudan. A wise and just intervention policy has to include, reconcile and manage these (often clashing) neighbors, and also register French and Italian mixed motives (i.e. their commercial interests cannot be allowed to be paramount) as well as those of the US and the UK. It is a tall diplomatic order, but not impossible, precisely because the Gaddafi regime has offended all its neighbors and the major powers in its long tenure.
    (iii) The Kurds of Iraq remain grateful for the “no fly zone” established after Gulf War 1. Their case, however, was different, because the US and the western powers did not want to encourage the Kurds to secede, so a very unsatisfactory form of unrecognized autonomy emerged, with often miserable consequences for the welfare of Kurds until 2003. No such constraint applies, as yet, in Libya: both the regime and its opponents agree on the national definition of Libya. That makes a political intervention in Libya more likely to be successful, provided an agreed strategy can be made with the Libyan opposition, and provided there is no planned international administration. It is to a Libyan transitional government that power must go, not an international trusteeship. Contrary to current wisdom it was not the removal of Saddam’s regime that triggered all difficulties in Iraq; a good case can be made that it was the decision to have a US & UK government of Iraq (the CPA) rather than an Iraqi transitional government that created many of the post 2003 difficulties. The US and the UK were not only unilateral interventionists; they behaved unilaterally toward the Iraqi opposition. (I discuss these matters in The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq (2005) and in How To Get out of Iraq with Integrity (2009).) You are right that the Kurds had (limited) self-government, but they were not especially well helped by the West; and you skate over the treatment of the Iraqi opposition in 2002-3. But I’m sure we converge in agreeing that any intervention to achieve self-government in Libya must trump intervention to achieve some idealized version of international trusteeship (which will be seen as neo-colonial).
    (iv) Lastly, we must fully consider plausible non-intervention scenarios. Imagine that the Libyan opposition is crushed now (and the criticism that follows), but then it wins ten to fifteen years later. The Libyan opposition figures who come to power might then look on Europeans (and Americans) much the way the Shiites of Iraq did in 2003 – “these people stood to one side while we were crushed by the dictator because they feared we might be Islamists – and because they wanted our oil.”

    Sincerely, Brendan

  6. If we do nothing, what are the consequences of allowing Gaddafi to crush the legitimate aspirations of his people?

    1. He will restart his WMD programme and eventually his finger will be on the nuclear button.
    2. His opponents, real and imagined, will be murdered and tortured in their tens of thousands.
    3. Having seen how the West has reacted, he will recommence his policy of financing and supporting the export of terrorism to the West. He will also continue to support unsavoury regimes in Africa.
    4. The West will be shown to be pusillanimous and powerless.
    5. Gaddafi’s ‘success’ will encourage other dictators to crush dissidents with overwhelming force and brutality.
    6. Gaddafi will open the floodgates of immigrants seeking a better life in Europe.

    Can we morally and ethically stand back and allow a dictator, with an insigificant army and air force, to massacre civilians with impunity? Are we so demoralised that we can only think of problems which might occur if we intervene? Is the West incapable of learning from its mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan? I hope not, for our own future.

  7. I am sure that USA should mind its own business, which is pretty terrible, and it is world-known. I used this summer to score essays of 6th seventh grades students, who were writing in their essays that 9/11 was INTERNAL occurrence. Considering how many victims inside of the country this occurrence brought, and how terrible were consequences of this occurrence for Iraqi civilians and USA troops, I am sure that USA should EXCLUSIVELY take now care only of its own business. And the current unwelcome implementation of extremely unpopular health care reform and the growing federal deficit should be the obvious priority the same way as the high unemployment. USA can’t teach ANY country, having in its own yard such terrible situation, which is terrible morally, financially, economically and politically.

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