Solutions to Violent Conflict

Military Interventionism in Libya: A Pandora’s Box of Questions

In Middle East on October 5, 2011 at 12:28 pm

In Benghazi, capital of the Libyan revolution, people demonstrate against Qaddafi with the flag of the new "free Libya." Photo: © al-mak / Demotix/Demotix/Corbis

David Cortright

I supported the no-fly zone over Libya as a necessary measure to protect civilians from imminent threat of military attack. During the course of the intervention, however, many questions emerged. What began as a limited mission to prevent a massacre quickly morphed into a policy of armed regime change, with allied forces flying combat support missions for rebels who were seeking to overthrow Qaddafi by force.

Was this what the Security Council authorized? Some saw the mission as an embodiment of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P), the international obligation to step in and help those threatened with mass atrocities by their own governments.

The operation was legal under international law and had the backing of both the UN Security Council and the Arab League. The Arab League voted first, urging the UN to impose a no-fly zone and create “safe zones” in Libya. The Security Council responded by adopting Resolution 1973, which authorized multilateral military action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Resolution 1973 contained ambiguities, however. In Paragraph 4, it authorizes states ‘to take all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.’ In Paragraphs 6 and 8 the Resolution establishes a no-fly zone and authorizes states to take ‘all necessary measures to enforce compliance.’ The former mission was open-ended, the latter more limited.

The United States, France, and other countries interpreted the resolution as authorizing a broad military campaign in support of the rebels, arguing that the protection of civilians necessitated removal of the Qaddafi regime. Russia and other governments argued that partisanship for the rebels went beyond the limited protective mission envisioned in establishing a no-fly zone. What exactly was the military goal, and how much latitude do commanders have in implementing UN resolutions?

The question of legality was complicated within the United States by the Obama administration’s refusal to seek congressional authorization for the use of force. The U.S. Constitution gives the power to declare war and raise and maintain armed forces to Congress, not the President. The War Powers Act, adopted in 1975 to curb executive war-making in the wake of Vietnam, requires the president to obtain congressional authorization for military intervention overseas within 60-90 days of initially committing U.S. forces. Obama claimed not to be bound by this requirement, following the example of his recent predecessors in the White House. His invocation of far-reaching executive war-making privilege contributes to a weakening of congressional oversight and increases the danger of future abuses of power.

The president’s invocation of far-reaching executive war-making privilege contributes to a weakening of congressional oversight and increases the danger of future abuses of power.

The implications of these developments for future policy are uncertain. It was encouraging to see the international community respond with resolve to a dictator’s abuse of his own people. Whether the quick resort to military intervention was necessary is another matter, one that remains hotly debated. Will success in Libya give pause to tyrants elsewhere? That seems a thin hope at best.

Other questions arise.

Will the Libya experience lead to more frequent multilateral military interventions in the future? How do we prevent UN authorization from being a rubber stamp for Western political agendas (as also has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan)? How can we increase the UN’s ability to restrain the use of force? 

Protective intervention may be a legitimate principle of human security. Is the use of force the most appropriate means? The success in Libya may prompt some to argue for more frequent military interventions around the world. This could divert attention from nonmilitary tools of policy—including sanctions and diplomacy—that can help to prevent armed conflict and human rights abuse.

The Libya intervention also raises question about NATO’s role.

Is it appropriate for the alliance to act as the instrument of multilateral intervention beyond the Euro-Atlantic region? Is NATO to be the gendarme of the world?

An appropriate institutional and legal framework needs to be created before protective intervention can become global policy. A more diverse security capability also needs to be developed, one that is structured according to human security principles, as Mary Kaldor has advocated, and that is oriented toward policing rather than military action, as Robert Johansen has argued.

On balance the Libya intervention presents more questions than answers, and raises difficult dilemmas that need to be addressed before nations embark on further interventions in the name of protecting civilians.

David Cortright is director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.