The unexpectedly rapid fall of the house of Qaddafi has given many in the media an opportunity to speculate on whether the rebel victory constitutes a political “win” for Obama. His controversial decision to involve U.S. forces in the campaign to oust the colonel six months ago was much derided by Republican critics as simultaneously too much and too little. While some House Republicans pondered impeachment of the president for violations of the War Powers Act and voted in June to rebuke the administration, accusing the president of not providing a “compelling rationale” for the Libyan operation, Arizona Republican John McCain was advocating a greater U.S. role in the air campaign over Libya and suggesting House Republicans were meddling.
The demise of the Qaddafi regime may or may not polish Obama’s presidential image—November 2012 is a long way off, let’s recall—but it will certainly have an affect on how nations view multilateral actions and the still coalescing international doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. Multilateralism, abandoned by Bush when Iraq became a target in the war on terror, may be restored by Libya. The patience and effort to put together a real coalition not only saved U.S. face and finance, it spread the risk and the burden of the use of force in a manner that was deemed acceptable to all parties.
And the notion of the responsibility to protect endured its first significant test in the skies over Tripoli. Endorsed by major powers, including the United States, at a UN World Summit in 2005, it is far from an accepted doctrine among politicians and policymakers within national borders. “R2P,” the proposition that outside states have an obligation to intervene when another state engages in genocide or assorted crimes against humanity within its own borders, has grown in recent years out of abject failures to intervene when defenseless people were threatened by their own governments in Iraq, Rwanda, the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Qaddafi’s presumed inclination to reduce Benghazi to the stone age was part of the justification for the U.S./NATO intervention, ostensibly against targets which threatened civilians. It was pretty clear from the beginning, however, that Europe’s intention was to put an end to the 42 year reign of Qaddafi, particularly as his son seemed set to follow him into the family business. (Preventing waves of North Africans from washing ashore in southern Europe to escape the mayhem was undoubtedly an unspoken driver in NATO’s determination.)
The success of the doctrine in Libya, if it can be characterized as such, presents two dangers. The air campaign was costly and hazardous both to service members put in harm’s way and to the reputations of politicians and republics alike which participated. The outcome in Libya was and remains far from certain: it is no longer in danger of being Syria but will it be Iraq or Turkey? Only time and the willingness of UN/US/Europeans to involve themselves in North African nation building can tell. The NATO great powers that agreed to the Libya intervention may still come to regret their participation despite today’s apparent victory in Tripoli if the new state lurches dangerously in the future. The air campaign also took siginifcatly longer than anticipated; many were hoping for a quick Qaddafian collapse. He proved more durable than expected, but so too did NATO's ad hoc Libyan coalition. Still the length contributed both to the expense of the campaign and to the risk of the intervention proving ugly and diplomatically damaging. Such considerations may be cause for a retreat from the obligations of R2P when the next humanitarian crisis arises: that's one danger.
A related danger is that success may prove intoxicating to some, who may rush into the next intervention without properly assessing the risks and possible outcomes. Or they may come to see R2P as an international obligation merely or most effectively met through the use of force. R2P may still be served, and served best, via diplomatic persuasion and economic pressure. Early, non-military efforts aimed at preventing the crisis that would require an inevitably controversial use of force, R2P advocates argue, remains the preferred proactive course of nonlethal action.
None of these concerns can reduce easily to bumper-sticker length this election season, but let’s hope they are being pondered in Washington as this “victory” is evaluated in the future.