Libya Lessons (1): Don’t Gloat, but Liberal Interventionism did Work


Part 2 of this post will come on Thursday.

There is a lot of commentary, of course, on the war. I think, this, this, and this are a good start. Here are my own thoughts:

1. Can Libya be rolled in with Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, and France’ recent intervention in Ivory Coast into a winning model for future western interventions in the severe conflict zones? Somalia 1993 is not necessarily a counter-case, because the US went there to distribute aid (ie, nation-build), not to actually intervene militarily with a defined outcome for ‘victory.’

2. NATO pulled itself back from the post-GWoT brink, especially concerning Europe. Libya helps counter-act the growing belief that the Europeans don’t want to fight anymore. But it’s very obvious that Libya – minor country of just 7 million people – pushed NATO coordination to the brink. I remain a supporter of NATO, because it pools liberal democratic force, but Libya was a bullet dodged as much as a success. NATO should not be gloating or cheering, but rather thanking the gods that it all didn’t go horribly wrong.

3. The emergence of NATO a la carte is now entrenched. Some allies simply decided they didn’t want to be involved in Libya – Turkey and Germany specifically. But to avoid an alliance-wide crisis, they didn’t stand in the way either. So NATO countries, including the US (‘leading from behind’, the early shift in command to NATO), dipped in and out, more or less as dictated by their domestic politics. This was presaged by the many conditions placed on the operation of national forces in NATO’s Afghanistan operation in the last decade. Together, this could portend a major, new, de facto (although never admitted) modality in NATO’s use of force. On the one hand, it opens the possibility that other non-NATO members could cooperate more easily (if Germany can drop out, why not invite Mexico or SK in for a mission or two?). But most importantly, a la carte modalities effectively erode the collective security guarantee of Article 5 (that all the NATO members will fight as a unit if any is attacked). So the Eastern Europeans should be pretty terrified right now – maybe Germany or Spain will slack if Russia starts bulllying the Baltics.

4. This should not be a cause for neo-con gloating, or otherwise lead to a renewal of Bush, democratic imperialism, American empire talk, and the rest. The arguments against the campaign were very strong and the reason why most proponents argued for a limited intervention – a thumb on the scale to help the rebels, not an invasion cloaked in overwrought ‘freedom agenda’ rhetoric. My support for the intervention was narrow. NATO was to prevent a bloodbath, but otherwise let the rebels do it themselves. That would encourage local ownership of the results, prevent another Mideast quagmire for western forces, and limit the West’s moral culpability if it all went horribly wrong (as it may still). The obvious comparison is of course Iraq, where we are far more responsible for all the death and chaos of the 2000s. Intellectual defenders of the intervention should realize that we got fairly lucky in Libya, even as we did help shape the course. So hubris is foolish. On the other hand, opponents who discounted the closeness of Libya to NATO (making intervention easier), the close attention to limits (so keeping the intervention cheaper and less bloody for the West), and moral value of Gaddafi’s ouster (the rationale to begin with), really should recognize this. Walt ducks this by saying he never doubted the outcome once the US got involved, even though he argued earlier that we shouldn’t get involved, and the National Interest really should apologize to Samatha Power for its mean-spirited May/June 2011 cover.

5. Keep refining R2P. If Libya had gone wrong, it would have killed liberal interventionism. The West is running out of money for this sort of things, and its publics don’t like it either. The ‘rest’ worry that it is imperialism, and even non-western democracies like India, Japan, and S Korea, quietly reject or won’t sacrifice seriously for R2P. R2P Critics insists on taking an all-or-nothing attitude toward these sorts of operations – that any intervention will become a quagmire like Iraq, so we shouldn’t do it. But to be fair, Libya actually worked out pretty well. The limits on western intervention were maintained; ‘mission creep’ did not happen. The right guys won the war with minimal western assistance. The whole world didn’t have an Iraq-style freak-out over US imperialism. That’s not bad at all for R2P to my mind. But we should be open to the possibility that most R2P operations won’t go as well, but that isn’t a reason for not trying. R2P is so messy and hard, that we should be prepared to accept some level of failure.

4 thoughts on “Libya Lessons (1): Don’t Gloat, but Liberal Interventionism did Work

  1. Pingback: The World Still Needs the State | Rearranging Prejudices

  2. Pingback: Libya Lessons (2): NATO is No Longer Necessary – Get Out Now « Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: Some Media on the 9/11 Anniversary and Libya « Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: In Social Science, You’re always Under-read, so What do You do? (1) | Asian Security Blog

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