Humanitarian Intervention in Libya
A number of analysts have called for humanitarian intervention of some kind in Libya — a no-fly-zone at least, as suggested by the International Crisis Group, with others implying something more.
While such an intervention might become morally essential, several factors should give us pause:
- The anti-imperialist card — Any military intervention would greatly enhance the “foreign conspiracy” narrative in the region. All protesters would be more readily tarred with the accusation that they are agents of Western plots, seeking to invite in foreign domination. Given that even Mubarak brought up the theme, it would certainly be used to the fullest in Iran or Syria.
- Secondary costs — Western forces operating anywhere in the Muslim world would be seen by at least some fraction of Muslim publics as engaged in part of the “war on Islam,” no matter what the facts are.
- Encouraging passivity — That Arab publics believe they themselves can change their countries for the better is a crucial aspect of recent events. It is a backstep if outside intervention comes to be seen as necessary.
- Moral quagmire — Remember Somalia in the 1990s: moral certainty can rapidly evaporate on the ground. An intervening force might simply find itself backing one side in a tribe-on-tribe civil war.
- Difficulty — It appears that interventionists think an intervention is doable at little cost. That might be true with a no-fly zone (which is not likely to be very effective), but sending in troops might not go well. A few million Sunni in Iraq fought the main effort of the US military to a standstill for years, and some fraction of the populace might remain loyal to the former regime, even forming majorities in some areas. Recall also that only a few years after Saddam was overthrown, a majority of Iraqis approved of attacks on US forces.
This is not a one-sided calculus. Other factors could overwhelm the considerations above:
- Human rights violations could reach the scale of a true mass-atrocity event.
- It could become clear that Libyan opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of intervention — there are already people calling for it on the streets.
- The Arab world could clearly and decisively endorse such an intervention.
With luck, this will all soon by moot, and the regime will disintegrate, with something less than civil war on the other side.
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