The Lessons of Libya

The world had little time to celebrate the triumph of Cairo before it was faced with the chaos of Tripoli. The stunning success of Egypt’s protest movement gave hope to all those who believe in the transformative power of nonviolence. The civil war in Libya is a bracing reminder that violence remains the drug of choice for the world’s dictators. That the oppressed and disorganized people of Libya responded in kind should come as little surprise.

So the international community again faces a conundrum. Should it intervene to prevent a ruthless leader from killing his own people? Or are economic and political sanctions enough? The course of action in Libya is clouded by the psychosis of its leader. To all the world, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is a madman bent on clinging to power by whatever means necessary. Yet this is the same man who in 2003 renounced his nuclear ambitions in a shrewd bid to curry favor with the West. He may not be as mad as he appears.


These are familiar questions, of course. Whether the leader in question is Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, the international community is well acquainted with the cunning of despots. Unfortunately, the proper course of action in Libya is just as unclear as it was in the Balkans or in Baghdad. In theory, experience should serve as preparation for such confrontation, but it has not done so. The varieties of evil, sadly, are infinite, and once again the United States and its allies face a multitude of uncertainties.

Questions persist even though military options are limited. As of this writing, Qaddafi’s forces are advancing on the last rebel strongholds. Meanwile, the United Nations is considering a resolution calling for a no-flight zone and perhaps more aggressive steps. Wisely, the Obama administration has indicated it will not act without multilateral support. But will it endorse military action without the imprimatur of the United Nations? The White House is wary of engaging in another conflict in the Middle East, even at arm’s length. It is also concerned that there is no obvious successor to Qaddafi among the various rebel groups. That there is no national institution, like the military in Egypt, to steer the ship of state after the revolution is also a factor.

The issue of succession is crucial. In the just war tradition, the long-term consequences of military action must be taken into account under the rubric “probability of success.” Of course, the ultimate goal of any just war is the protection of innocents, and here the tradition shares common ground with a newer set of diplomatic principles called the responsibility to protect. Endorsed by 105 nations at the 2005 U.N. World Summit, this represents a new norm of international security, and Libya surely will serve as a case study in its effectiveness. Clearly, Qaddafi has violated the first principle: that a state has an obligation to protect its people. The second calls on the international community to help states meet this obligation through “confidential or public suasion, education, training and/or assistance.” Unfortunately, the events in Libya have moved too quickly for the United States and its allies to explore this option.

The international community is now wrestling with the final element of the norm: it has an obligation to mount a “timely and decisive response.” Unfortunately, the window for a timely response may have passed. And in some quarters, questions still remain about the need for a military solution. The purpose of the responsibility-to-protect norm is to “prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Proponents of intervention argue that the Qaddafi regime has perpetrated “crimes against humanity.” Members of the Obama administration, meanwhile, have suggested that military action will not be considered unless Libya threatens to become another Bosnia or Rwanda.

The question of how much death is too much death is a vexing one to ponder. Yet that is the moral quandary the United States now faces. Mired in Afghanistan and still deeply tied to Iraq, the United States is right to exercise caution when considering military action. At this moment, with momentum in Libya shifting in Qaddafi’s favor, the calculations grow even more complex. Whether the international community succeeds in imposing a no-flight zone or not, the lessons of Libya are already starting to surface. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently, the days of large ground wars are coming to an end. At a time of smaller but persistent conflicts around the world, the U.S. military must be leaner and more nimble. Together with the United Nations, the United States should encourage nations to fulfill their responsibility to protect, and in cases where nations fail in that responsibility, the international community should respond with speed and precision. Perhaps out of the ashes of Libya a new international regime can emerge, truly dedicated to quelling conflict and restoring peace.

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Richard Hug
8 years ago

Two brief comments:

1. Who cares what the "International Community" believes is right or wrong.  Follow Christ!  Some counties (like the old USSR and China), have been doing things which are good for them and them alone.  They do not care about what is right or wrong.  In the case of Libya, France NEEDS the Libyan  oil.  That may be why they are leading the charge to preserve stability (and oil flow) in Libya.    Would a martyr "follow the International Community".  Of course not, they would do what is right.  Christ tells us what is right...let's do it.

2. The entire concept of a "No Fly Zone" is somewhat immoral.  If we decide something is evil we don't defeat it, we simply tie one hand behind the evil's back.  Harry Truman did it in Korea, and we still have a problem there.  The French, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon did it in Vietnam, and bunches of folks my age are dead or messed up, with no success.  The first Bush did it in Iraq...and we still have a mess.  If we are going to commit American troops...lets commit them to win...not have them engaged in what could be a perpetual draw.  

These are tough decisions, interfering with the people/governments of countries a half a world away.  One hundred years ago, we would not have been made aware of the situation until months later.  Live TV seeing dead bodies has certainly made us wish to confront evil much quicker than before.  Is it moral or required to interfere in Libya?  You did hit it right when asking "how much death is too much death".  That is the question that the Jesuits and other leading thinkers need to provide guidance in to the rest of America.


James Bukowski
8 years ago
Bravo to President Obama and Secretary Clinton for NOT intervening unilaterally, but working with our Allies, the UN and the Arab League to show Qaddafi the world will not tolerate his unspeakable crimes against humanity. I look foward to the day he will be brought to stand trial at The Hague!  Our President has set a new standard for how international crises should be handled in the future.
David Smith
8 years ago
"The question of how much death is too much death is a vexing one to ponder."

It's probably a lot more easily solved in hindsight.  It'll be much less vexing then.
Craig McKee
8 years ago
We may not be intervening UNILATERALLY at the outset, but the USA will inevitably be left holding the bag AGAIN and sacrificingyoung blood needlessly. When are these people gonna figure out that the old formula "WAR IS GOOD FOR THE ECONOMY" simply does not work anymore?
8 years ago

Any time the US is involved, we go in with a coalition - but we're always the biggest player in terms of men and materiel. So let's not advance the meme that this intervention is somehow 'different' from any other military adventure be it Iraq 2003 or Afghanistan 2001...

What is different is who's in charge and what difference that makes to the moral calculations of those who from 1967 to the present determined which 'side' was the warmongers and which 'side' was always the good guys.

Exceptions apply of course. If the USA attacks a sovereign country without UN approval but the President is a Democrat (Kosovo, Clinton) it's OK. If the USA attacks a country without UN approval but the President is a Republican (Grenada, Reagan), it's an atrocity. Today it's Lybia and Obama.

Technically it appears an attempt at 'humanitarian intervention' but by that rubric, most invasions of 3rd world countries could be justified. So I'm going to be keening reading all the opinions of those who routinely condemned Bush for being a warmonger or Reagan for being a warmonger. Why is it different this time? Because POTUS has a "D" behind his name?

C Walter Mattingly
8 years ago
Re "To all the world...Qaddafi is a madman bent on clinging to power by whatever means necessary. Yet this is the same man who in 2003 renounced his nuclear ambitions in a shrewd bid to curry favor with the West." I would add that we can more narrowly define who Qaddafi was currying favor with when he gave up his nuclear program. The US under George Bush's leadership had just overthrown Saddam Hussein in about 2 weeks' time with minimum casualties, with saddam on the run and likely to face the fury of his own people. Here was another monomaniacal butcher who had exterminated large portions of his own people, who was hated by the majority of those he lorded over, and who was a leader of a minority sect in his own country. Seeing this, Mr Qaddafi saw his likeness and a similar possible fate and had an epiphany: I'd better do what the US wants. Not only our intelligence, but the western world was stunned to find how advanced his nuclear program was. Just imagine if we were now confronted with this mad butcher with the possibility of a primitive nuclear retaliation at his disposal from 8 more years of nuclear weapons development.
Although it is on the face of it a good thing that the UN has approved the action against Qaddafi, its tardiness may, as the article suggests, have delayed the action to the point of making it inefficacious. Similarly, if Blair had convinced Clinton to act against Milosevic earlier, a hundred thousand lives might have been saved. Let's hope this proves otherwise.
Michael Kelly
8 years ago

Re: comment #2 by Jim: “Our President has set a new standard for how international crises should be handled in the future.”

             Jim and likeminded admirers of Obama obviously have not followed President Obama’s handling of the Libya situation closely.  Obama did not initiate the building of a coalition.  Rather, Cameron and Sarkozy did, while Obama dithered and was indecisive, sending mixed signals and basically waiting to see where European leaders were going before committing himself.  Obama showed no leadership at all and also failed to consult with congress until the last minute at which time he simply told them what he had finally decided to do. 

             See Foreign Policy Magazine, 3/16/11, “European Governments Completely Puzzled about US Position”

 “"The way the U.S. acted was to let the Germans and the Russians block everything, which announced for us an alignment with the Germans as far as we are concerned," one of the diplomats told The Cable.

Clinton's unwillingness to commit the United States to a specific position led many in the room to wonder exactly where the administration stood on the situation in Libya.

"Frankly we are just completely puzzled," the diplomat said. "We are wondering if this is a priority for the United States."

On the same day, Clinton had a short meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in which Sarkozy pressed Clinton to come out more forcefully in favor of action in Libya. She declined Sarkozy's request, according to a government source familiar with the meeting.

Sarkozy told Clinton that "we need action now" and she responded to him, "there are difficulties," the source said, explaining that Clinton was referring to China and Russia's opposition to intervention at the United Nations. Sarkozy replied that the United States should at least try to overcome the difficulties by leading a strong push at the U.N., but Clinton simply repeated, "There are difficulties."

One diplomat, who supports stronger action in Libya, contended that the United States' lack of clarity on this issue is only strengthening those who oppose action.

"The risk we run is to look weak because we've asked him to leave and we aren't taking any action to support our rhetoric and that has consequences on the ground and in the region," said the European diplomat.

British and French frustration with the lack of international will to intervene in Libya is growing. British Prime Minister David Cameronsaid on Tuesday that Arab sentiment was, "if you don't show your support for the Libyan people and for democracy at this time, you are saying you will intervene only when it's about your security, but you won't help when it's about our democracy."

France sent letters on Wednesday to all the members of the U.N. Security Council, which is discussing a Lebanon-sponsored resolution to implement a no-fly zone, calling on them to support the resolution, as has been requested by the Arab League.

"Together, we can save the martyred people of Libya. It is now a matter of days, if not hours. The worst would be that the appeal of the League of the Arab States and the Security Council decisions be overruled by the force of arms," the letter stated.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe wrote on his blog, "It is not enough to proclaim, as did almost all of the major democracies that ‘Qaddafi must go.' We must give ourselves the means to effectively assist those who took up arms against his dictatorship."


 And see: FP Magazine, 3/18/11, “How Obama Turned on a Dime”

 “"In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook," said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. "The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one."


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