How Libya's Qaddafi Brought Humanitarian Intervention Back in Vogue

By Marquand, Robert | The Christian Science Monitor, March 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

How Libya's Qaddafi Brought Humanitarian Intervention Back in Vogue


Marquand, Robert, The Christian Science Monitor


The notion of humanitarian intervention went dormant after the Iraq war, but has now returned, championed by many of the same countries that were the greatest opponents of invading Baghdad.

The decision for the international community to take military action in Libya, sanctioning airstrikes to beat back Muammar Qaddafi's forces as they gained on rebel strongholds, has returned the idea of humanitarian intervention to the world stage. It's a notion that has lain dormant - and was discredited in many corners - after the Iraq war, but has now returned, championed by many of the same countries that were the greatest opponents of invading Baghdad.

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which approved using "all necessary means" short of a ground invasion to protect Libyan civilians, recalls many of the same humanitarian principles that led to intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, where the aim was to cross borders to prevent the further slaughter of innocent civilians.

Those ideals are back in play, though whether they will be popularly legitimized in Libya remains unclear. France seems certain they will. While it was the most ardent voice against the Iraq war, France has emerged as the champion of intervention in Libya after being slow to support revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Still, many questions remain about the way forward. What's the international endgame? Is the real goal regime change? With NATO assuming control of the mission, how far will it go to support the rebels? Are the humanitarian arguments, enshrined in the 2005 UN principle of a "responsibility to protect," sometimes called R2P, practical in Libya? The uncertainties are large. But the principle involved represents a decades-long effort to consciously articulate the rights of people to life and liberty into the realm of international law.

Reaching consensus on intervention

The push for intervention, however, was not a dry application of principles. It was made feasible by a unique set of circumstances erupting across the Middle East that gave "idealists" the upper hand in the White House, on Downing Street, and at the Elysee Palace.

Policymakers feared the "Arab spring" and its homegrown and secular impulses would be crushed in Libya by Mr. Qaddafi's forces bearing down on Benghazi, the unofficial capital of the rebel movement. The invitation of the Arab League for a no-fly zone gave crucial cover for military action, which could have been interpreted in the Arab world as Western imperialism. And the French and British, with relatively sudden and strong support for Libyan rebels, pushed a reluctant President Obama to intervene at the 11th hour.

That idealism witnessed in recent months in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East helped foreign-policy idealists triumph over "realists" who resisted the idea of involvement in Libya as possibly entangling the West in another Mideast war.

"The Arab spring was at the core of this," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Those people supporting intervention are thinking more broadly than Libya. They are returning to a more idealistic foreign policy after two years of realism."

The European promise to lead on Libya also seemed to help force the American hand. As pressure grew on the United States to take action, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it wasn't a question of whether the US could enforce a no-fly zone, "The question is whether it's a wise thing to do, and that's the discussion that's going on at a political level."

"The Americans have been saying to Europe all along, 'Where are our partners?' So when the Europeans and the French came to say, 'We want to be your partner,' that shifted things," says Mr. Kupchan.

On March 24, a week after the UN Security Council sanctioned military action in Libya, President Obama said, "It is in America's national interests to participate . …

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