What is the Goal?: The increasingly complex intervention in Libya
Pro-democracy protests began against the dictatorial regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in mid-February. Within days, Qaddafi resorted to force, killing dozens. Within a week, regime opponents had opted for armed conflict. The rebels gained control of Benghazi and other towns, but as Qaddafi looked set to defeat them, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, authorizing a no-fly zone and “all necessary means” to protect civilians.
Within days, the United States, with assistance from a few others, had established a no-fly zone. Then the United States began bombing Libyan tanks and personnel, allowing rebels to re-establish control in Benghazi.
Resolution 1973 clearly re-establishes the authority of the Security Council in authorizing the use of force. Recall that the United States had no such authorization for the use of force in Iraq in 2003 or Kosovo in 1999. Still, the resolution is a necessary step, not a sufficient one.
Under international law, the use of force must also meet the test of necessity, which requires affirmative answers to three questions: What is the lawful objective of the force? Is the use of force a last resort? Does resort to force have a good chance of succeeding? The necessity principle comes to us from the just war doctrine and is just as important as having Security Council authorization.
If any of these three questions cannot be answered clearly and affirmatively, states must look for alternatives to using force—the types of alternatives that the United States used and is using in support of other pro-democracy uprisings from Egypt to Syria.
But the very first question—what is the goal?—was still being asked by members of Congress days after the bombing began. The president at first said the action would require a “few days.” A week later, the Secretary of Defense said U.S. forces are likely be involved for months. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh said at a meeting of the American Society of International Law on March 26 that the mission was “limited” and “multilateral.” He did not, however, say what exactly “it” is.
President Obama told the nation on March 29 that the use of force was to stop “violence on a horrific scale.” But what the coalition stopped was the defeat of the rebels, allowing them to continue fighting. The United States has intervened in a civil war.
Resolution 1973, however, only refers to protecting civilians. Civilians are dying each day that the fighting continues. Prolonging the fighting by “helping” (as NATO now calls it) will not protect civilians. The rebels could still lose and leave themselves and their communities in even more danger than when coalition bombing began. The rebels may win, but we know virtually nothing about them. Will they be better rulers than Qaddafi? Look at the African countries that have been the scene of so much intervention over the years—Chad, Somalia, Congo, Ivory Coast. In what way have civilians been made safer by the chaos wrought through foreign military intervention?
And if we want to support the will of Libya’s people, how do we do so by determining the outcome of their internal struggle?
When I raised the principle of necessity on the same panel at the American Society meeting, Koh did not mention that he or others in the administration had even considered it. He, rather, invoked the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and said the United States must never hesitate to intervene militarily as we had those cases.
Yet, both Rwanda and Srebrenica are cases of failed intervention, not failure to intervene.
In both places, the United Nations sent peacekeeping forces where there was no peace to keep; the United Nations failed to send the number of personnel necessary, and failed to develop a strategy that could accomplish anything positive in the circumstances. Those missions offered false promises of protection that Hutus and Serbs exploited, unleashing bloodbaths. Even then, the same U.N. member states that had demanded peacekeepers failed to intervene.
No one wants to see such tragedy again. But as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has rightly said, military intervention is complicated. People will die on all sides, civilians and combatants alike. Before resorting to force, therefore, the law of armed conflict requires assessing alternatives and the chance of success.
Germany refused to vote in favor of Resolution 1973 because the use of military force was too “unpredictable,” “risky” and “dangerous” and because other means, such as targeted sanctions, political pressure and international isolation provided alternatives to military action.
Assessing necessity should also have taken account of the moral hazard of intervention. Anti-Qaddafi forces took up arms to fight, abandoning the peaceful approach adopted in Tunisia and Egypt. Did they start a fight they knew they could not win because they gambled on U.S. intervention? Did they hear the calls for military force? And is Operation Odyssey Dawn now giving false hope to Syrians seeking change in their own country?
The Libyan opposition could have been urged to seek asylum in Egypt and Tunisia where they could have built an organization to pursue a peaceful transition of power. Military force was not the only way. The message needs to get out that the United Nations will support democracy ambitions with peaceful means.
But the United States is in Libya now. It is too late to urge the rebel leaders to seek asylum. It is finally time for clear purpose and planning—or this intervention will end even more tragically than it began. And the planning should be about ending the bloodshed, not escalating it by arming the rebels, which is not authorized by the Security Council. Resolution 1973 keeps in place the Libya-wide arms embargo that was put in place in Resolution 1970, making an exception only for the coalition to bring in their own weapons relevant to the no-fly zone and other measures to protect civilians.