Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Libya: “Justifications” for Intervention

by Micah Zenko
June 24, 2011

Rebels fighters are reflected on a side mirror at the front line in Ajdabiyah June 22, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany

As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, I have been a critic of the U.S. military involvement in Libya from the beginning (see some of my writings on the topic here, here, here, here, here, and here; and podcasts here, here, and here). As I’ve watched the Libyan adventure unfold, I’ve been particularly interested by the myriad justifications that proponents have offered for intervention.

The predominant reason given—and indeed authorized in UN Security Council Resolution 1973—has been “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Beyond this narrow mandate, however, an additional set of overlapping reasons have been put forth, before and since the intervention began on March 19.  Below are but five of the more prominent secondary justifications put forth by Obama administration officials, congressional members, pundits, and policy analysts.

One: Regime Change

On the second day of the bombing campaign, cruise missiles were launched into Muammar Qaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia compound in Tripoli. The stated military objective was to disrupt the “command and control” of loyalist forces, but the immediate intention was to kill Qaddafi in an attempt to quickly resolve the civil war. The day prior, British defense minister Liam Fox was asked if Qaddafi was a “legitimate target,” and responded that attacking the Libyan leader would “potentially be a possibility.” Since then, while NATO officials emphasize that it does not intentionally target specific individuals, the alliance has routinely bombed Qaddafi’s suspected residences, including one attack that reportedly killed the Libyan leader’s son and three of his grandchildren.

Since then, the calls for regime change through a targeted killing have only increased. Five weeks into the NATO-led bombing campaign, Senator Lindsey Graham demanded that the alliance “cut the head of the snake off, go to Tripoli, start bombing [Qaddafi’s] inner circle.” Senator John McCain further lamented that while President Obama was limiting America’s military mission to achieve primarily humanitarian objectives, “the fact is that we need to take [Qaddafi] out.”

Foggy Bottom, apparently, wants Qaddafi deposed—but only of his own volition. Last week, when presented with several potential diplomatic solutions to resolving the civil war, a State Department spokesperson responded that the only option that the United States was willing to entertain was Qaddafi, “stepping down from power.” Thus, beyond the initial stated military mission of protecting civilians, the only acceptable outcome of the intervention has become the removal of Qaddafi from power, with the bombing campaign continuing until whenever that objective is achieved.

Two: Sending a Message to Other Dictators

The Libyan uprising and subsequent civil war occurred within the broader context of the Arab Spring that began in neighboring Tunisia, and has swept across North Africa into the Middle East. It was believed by many that the demonstration effect of intervening to attempt to stop the brutal repression used by the Qaddafi regime would deter other dictators from doing likewise.  As the events in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and even Libya have demonstrated, attempting to use force for second-order psychological effects is a fool’s errand, and should not be included as a justification for military intervention in the first place.

Nevertheless, in the absence of intervention in Libya’s civil war, President Obama warned in his March 28 address to the nation that the “democratic impulses…would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power;” former State Department official, Anne Marie Slaughter, contended that “if Colonel Qaddafi wins, regimes across the region will conclude that force is the way to answer protests;”  Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist, claimed that “If not for this intervention…the message would have gone out to all dictators that ruthlessness works;” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote, “We would send a signal of Western impotence in a region that analyzes such signals keenly;” and Senator John Kerry believed that a “military intervention in Libya sends a critical signal to other leaders in the region: They cannot automatically assume they can resort to large-scale violence to put down legitimate demands for reform without consequences.”

Three: Supporting the Libyan Rebels

While the Libyan rebels have been unable to remove Qaddafi from power, its self-appointed leadership group—the Transitional National Council (TNC)—has succeeded at courting western support since its founding on March 5. Utilizing the skills of multi-national public relations firms like the Harbour Group and Bell Pottinger, the TNC has consistently portrayed itself as inclusive, western-educated, committed to democratic principles, and opposed to any Islamist influences. The TNC’s official website—motto: “Freedom. Justice. Democracy”—provides upbeat messages about the progress of the war, and extensive coverage of every foreign official who tours Benghazi.

After one such visit in mid-May, Senator John McCain vouched for the rebel leadership, stating: “Their Prime Minister got a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. Their Finance Minister was recently teaching economics in Seattle…others are lawyers, doctors, women activists.”  Similarly, after British Foreign Secretary William Hague held talks with the TNC in the rebel-held capital in early June, he declared: “These people at the top of this organization are genuine believers in democracy and the rule of law. It is quite inspiring.” After another early June visit to Benghazi, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman wrote of being profoundly impressed by everyone he encountered, and drew a vivid picture for how the military intervention in Libya was transforming America’s image in the Arab world: “Imagine walking in the main square of a teeming Arab city and having people wave the American flag, clamor for photographs with a visiting American official, and celebrate the United States as both savior and model.”

Four: Repaying European Support in Afghanistan

Reports of the White House debate over whether to join the Paris and London-led war party show that the Obama administration has been a reluctant participant from the start. One reason that the administration overcame its reluctance was to maintain the limited support that European NATO allies have provided to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. To repay them for their cooperation in the Hindu-Kush, the United States was compelled to support those European allies in North Africa.

In explaining why the United States was intervening in a country that was not a “vital interest,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in late March: “We asked our allies, our NATO allies, to go into Afghanistan with us ten years ago. They have been there and a lot of them have been there despite the fact they were not attacked… They stuck with us. When it comes to Libya, we started hearing from the U.K., France, Italy, other of our NATO allies. This was in their vital national interests.” This rationale has endured, with Secretary Gates acknowledging last week: “What was going on in Libya was considered a vital interest by some of our closest allies. Those are the same allies that have come to our support and assistance in Afghanistan. And so it seems to me the kind of limited measured role that the president decided on in support of our allies, who did consider it a vital interest, is a legitimate way to look at this problem.” Or, as Senators Joe Lieberman and Marco Rubio wrote yesterday: “American disengagement would also inflict irreparable damage on the NATO alliance…Having walked out on our European allies in the middle of a battle, we can expect them to do the same to us in Afghanistan.”

Five: It Will Be a Piece of Cake

A final proposition put forward by intervention proponents was that, ultimately, it would not be very hard to achieve the desired end state. Whether based on recent technological advances or the fragile nature of loyalist security forces, such best-case scenario thinking was evident on both sides of the Atlantic. Libya’s rebels encouraged the Western assumption that Qaddafi could be deposed with ease. One purported spokesperson for the rebels’ Transitional National Council claimed on March 13, “We are capable of controlling all of Libya, but only after the no-fly zone is imposed.”

The United States, according to Obama, would lead with “days, not weeks” of military action, thus “shaping the conditions for the international community to act together.”  White House spokesperson, Jay Carney, later clarified America’s role to be “a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners.” My Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliot Abrams asserted that only a “small amount of effort [is] needed from the United States to ensure that Qaddafi is defeated.”  The former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak, discussing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, contended that it would “change their calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.” Meanwhile, the French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, who was instrumental in flying Libyan rebel leaders to Paris to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, made the implausible claim that “If the decision had been made to intervene five or six days earlier, bombing three airports would have been sufficient.”

So Why Does This Matter?

Every time the United States considers the use of military force, proponents and opponents offer a smattering of justifications for why it should—or should not—happen. Of course, people have varying vantage points and biases, which leads different arguments to be convincing to different audiences. This is to be expected in a democracy. But presidents do not have the luxury of finding a lot of arguments convincing enough. When presidents authorize a military action, they must have a clear objective in mind. Without a singular, defined goal, policymakers cannot appropriately match means and ends, which increases the likelihood of failure.

The United States will assuredly use military force against another state in the future, whether to attempt to protect civilian populations, destroy threatening WMD or ballistic missile capabilities, or degrade assets associated with an adversarial regime. When the debates over such interventions unfurl, take the time to sift and winnow through each of the justifications provided by government officials and pundits. Then decide for yourself if these arguments—either individually, or in some cluster—rise to the level of requiring the use of the American military. In the case of Libya, there was one overarching rationale provided—the protection of civilians—yet the initial intervention and the now ninety-seven day bombing campaign has been about so much more.

Post a Comment 13 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The crucial question remains: Why is the U.S./NATO attacking Libya? Surely if the U.S. had been on friendly terms with the Libyan regime, it could have overlooked the actions Libya took to maintain order within its borders rather than casting these actions as a prelude to genocide. Lately, one hears the justification of promoting regional stability. This mirrors the same sequence of justification in the Serbian intervention of the late 90s. At first it was to help the Kosovars, but later, to promote regional stability. Perhaps this is a clue to why NATO is conducting its operations. It’s not like NATO accidentally stumbled into such a costly and embarrassingly visible action. Apparently, if the underlying reasons for the bombardment came out, NATO would suffer even more embarrassment.

  • Posted by PiccolaBee

    With all due respect, Mr. Zenko fails to discuss the establishment of a NFZ by NATO in Libya in context of the larger events sweeping through the Middle East, i.e. the Arab Spring. I find this unfortunate. He also fails to address the Libya actions by NATO in context of US relations with other countries. In the days leading up to UN Res 1973, Biden flew to Moscow and had several direct talks with both Medvedev and Putin. Further, Sec. Gates went to the UAE (or Qatar) and had several high-level discussions with diplomats there.

    Additionally, his discussion of the Libyan TNC seems superficial and gives no indication that he has in any way attempted to directly interact with either members of the TNC or the numerous other pro-democracy groups and individuals who are actively communicating with the world at large. Instead of writing an article that seems reactive and expresses a biased viewpoint, would the author consider exploring the possibilities of viable democratic institutions emerging in Libya and the region as a whole? Or at least exploring forward-looking ways in which individuals, NGOs and governments can support the democratic aspirations of millions of people?

    I do believe there is a larger picture to meaningfully explore here, one that might involve a subtle (or seismic) shift in Old Cold War posturing. NATO and Russia are actively negotiating the European Missile Defense shield. Separating the public rhetoric put forth by various groups and governments and their actual actions might be a fruitful place to start. Additionally, an analysis of the recent major weapons sales by both NATO countries and Russia to countries in MENA might be useful, especially if NATO is being discussed.

    Best wishes.

  • Posted by daniel

    on “sending a message to dictators”, it just occurred to me that Qatar, the most vocal Arab nation in the action in Libya is an “ABSOLUTE MONARCHY”. If indeed the coalition were genuinely interested in sending such massage, how come they ignored their ally?. its all politics.

  • Posted by daniel

    On supporting “rebels”, what is the legal justification of supporting a rebel group against a government? the coalition might as well go support the LRA in Uganda.

  • Posted by joe from Lowell

    OK, I give up: how is striking command centers in which the commander and chief of the military is thought to be located different from “disrupting command and control?”

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