In the first part of a new FPIF Strategic Dialogue on the Libyan War, Ian Williams argues that the choice is clear: to support the popular uprising and not the unpopular tyrant. See Robert Naiman’s anti-intervention argument here. Also see the two contributors respond to each other’s arguments here.

Ian WilliamsIt is a particularly pernicious form of cultural imperialism for comfortable Western leftists to disregard what the actual Tunisians, Libyans, Kosovars, or Bosnians themselves have asked for – intervention to stop “their” rulers killing them. This setting aside of the wishes of people threatened with massacre in favor of Western armchair anti-imperialism is all the more remarkable coming from the left, which once swore by internationalism.

The calls to respect national sovereignty echo those of the despots of Africa and other regimes around the world who believe that it’s nobody’s business what a ruler does in his “own” country. Or even worse, such calls emulate the know-nothing isolationists on the right who do not care what happens to foreigners.

The ad-hoc arguments marshaled against the intervention in Libya have included:

  • The unconstitutionality of the president ordering military action
  • The expense of military action at a time of cuts
  • The invalidity of a UN resolution passed with abstentions
  • The Security Council exceeding its authority by violating Libyan sovereignty
  • The self-interested motives of those intervening
  • The “discovery” of ex-al-Qaeda supporters among the rebels
  • The failure of the West to intervene in other places where civilians face potential massacres such as Bahrain, Gaza, Ivory Coast, and Yemen

Many of these arguments are deployed to flesh out an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative that evades the crucial question: should the world let Libyan civilians die at the hands of a tyrant?

Gaddafi’s heavily armed forces were headed to Benghazi, in defiance of Security Council resolutions, to carry out acts against international humanitarian law. In fact, they had already started bombing and shelling the city indiscriminately and had a track record of massacres, mass arrests, and brutality in cities they had already occupied.

Intervention: Always Wrong?

Opposition to interventionism has sometimes been muted in other circumstances, for instance Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and Laos, Tanzanian intervention in Uganda, or indeed India’s military incursion that gave birth to Bangladesh. In none of these cases was the result utopian, but in each case it certainly improved the situation. Indeed Cuban intervention in Africa and Che’s disastrous guerrilla escapades in Latin America are the subject of reverent leftist legend rather than calumny.

Perhaps the archetypal case, in leftist lore, is the Spanish Civil War. Few of those opposing intervention in Libya are likely fans of George Orwell who, after returning from Spain, commented that “there is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more of less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction.” Orwell and many others went to Spain to fight Franco and supported calls for intervention by the Western powers to help the Republic.

Orwell was also well aware of the imperfection of the side he was fighting for, since he not only witnessed the repression of dissidents on the Republican side but barely escaped with his life from KGB agents. Of course, the Spanish Republicans should have refused aid and weapons from the Soviet regime, which was already killing people in quantities that at the time exceeded what the Nazis were accomplishing. But nobody else was offering.

However, all the bluster notwithstanding, intervention, as now enshrined in the “Responsibility to Protect,” is now an established part of international law. The intervention in Libya is legal. Whether it was the right thing to do, or whether the United States should be involved, is a separate issue, as indeed is the permanently debatable but entirely domestic issue of presidential versus congressional prerogatives on the matter of war powers.

A British or European might want to point out, however, that many of us are glad that Franklin Roosevelt did an end run round Congress in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, even if his clear aim was to grab the British Empire before it fell into Axis hands. Indeed, the non-intervention rule is particularly ironic for the United States, which owes its independence to the timely intervention of a reactionary French Royalist regime.

There would be more consistency, and indeed humanity, if protestors refined their arguments so they did not oppose intervention in general, but specified why they opposed intervention by particular countries, which in this case means the United States.

Should We Oppose the U.S. Involvement?

As a rule of thumb, one should always be wary of U.S. intervention, and it is indeed always worth questioning both Washington’s motives and its methods.

But the positions of many of those who have reflexively opposed the implementation of the UN resolution on Libya do not really involve questioning. Rather they consist of a series of dogmatic assertions, which tend to distill down to the assertion that the United States is always wrong. Even a stopped clock is right occasionally, and their assertion of perpetual American malice and greed is a form of metaphysical mirror image of the equally untenable premise that the United States is always virtuous and right.

In the case of Libya, as in Kosovo, the United States was dragged unwillingly into its role by the Europeans and others and by the events on the ground, namely Gaddafi’s murderous threats and actual behavior. The United States had developed cynically good relations with Gaddafi. The West had no problems gaining access to Libyan oil. Regime change puts these relationships at risk.

Above all, the Security Council mandated this intervention, fulfilling its mandate to preserve peace and security, as interpreted by the General Assembly, which decided that that remit includes the failure of governments to protect their own people – or their persistence in attacking them.

The UN Resolution

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 was the classic smorgasbord that comes out of negotiations, with potential vetoes lurking in the background. To assuage the fears of those opposed to U.S. imperialism rightly concerned about what happened in Iraq (without a UN mandate), the resolution precluded troops on the ground. Sadly that left air operations as the only weapon. U.S. affection for massive fire power and force protection perhaps led to the unnecessarily massive bombardment of the first days. But on the other hand there has been no significant anti-aircraft action from Libya. Libyan geography has also lent itself to attacks on military columns strung out along the few roads with less risk of civilian casualties.

The mandate to protect civilians is at once limited – and flexible. If a regime shows no intention of stopping its repression and bloodshed, the mandate can’t be fulfilled without getting rid of him.

Frankly, Libya and the world would not suffer from Gaddafi’s departure.

Why Libya?

Frequently, opposition to intervention has depended, oddly, on the traditional “Israeli defense” at the UN. Israeli diplomats often argue that no one should criticize Israel when there are so many Arab states guilty of similar or worse atrocities. In this context, the West’s silence and inaction – indeed, the complicity in the repression in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria – preclude any action in Libya.

In the real world, of course, such an all-or-nothing approach translates into “nothing.” In Libya, the deployment of aircraft, tanks, and artillery against civilians certainly goes a stage beyond the admittedly pernicious use of small arms in those other countries – not of course in Gaza, but we know the circumstances there.

In fact, the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya seems so far to have fulfilled the promise of the Responsibility to Protect. It averted the threatened massacre of the citizens of Benghazi by Gaddafi’s supporters. It has so far crippled the regime’s main strength, its heavy weaponry, so that the local Libyan opposition has been driving the former government forces out of city after city. So far, unless you take the word of the mendacious Gaddafi regime, there have also been minimum civilian casualties.


Humanitarian intervention under the auspices of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is indeed a dangerous tool, subject to expedient abuse. Which is why its proponents insisted it needed a UN mandate. The Libyan intervention has that. The Security Council needs to monitor its execution carefully, and it could do that much more effectively if Moscow, in particular, would stop flip-flopping.

Behind Russian discomfort over R2P is its all-too-apparent relevance to Chechnya. But Moscow could have vetoed the resolution. Its abstention implicitly went along with the wording of the resolution, and its experience of the Gulf War resolutions taught it what to watch out for in terms of mission creep. If it stopped grandstanding and got more actively involved, it would be a better watchdog.

Gaddafi’s is clearly a failed regime. Its collapse in almost every population center when challenged demonstrates a lack of popular and institutional support. The provisional government in Benghazi has claimed democratic principles and has so far lived up to them. There are some strange stirrings of Islamophobia among anti-interventionists who claim either that intervention is anti-Islamic or that the new government will be fundamentalist Islamic.

In any case, the rebels seem to have popular support. Those who respect popular sovereignty, as opposed to state sovereignty, should really let the Libyans decide whether it is better to die in a flood of tanks and rockets, or overcome them by calling for international aid.

Ian Williams, senior analyst and long time contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, is a New York-based author and journalist. He is currently working on a new edition of his book, The UN For Beginners.

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