Looking back ii

In the first post of this thread I asked whether the New Statesman had been premature in condemning the Libyan intervention now that Gaddafi’s regime had fallen.  The answer, according to Simon Jenkins, is no; the fall of Gaddafi changes nothing. The intervention was, and still is, wrong.  At the core of Jenkins’ argument is what he identifies as ‘the classic paradox of liberal interventionism’. 

If Cameron wants to take credit for the removal of Gaddafi then he cannot avoid responsibility for the aftermath. Yet that responsibility strips a new regime of home grown legitimacy and strength.

As with the recent Guardian editorial (see A progressive Security Council?), Jenkins appears to prefer sticking to the narrow UN mandate – ‘to prevent massacre in Benghazi’.  NATO has weakened the Libyan sense of self-determination and possibly the international legitimacy of the new regime by moving beyond that.

We may applaud the chance of freedom about to be granted to a lucky group of oppressed people, but that doesn’t justify the means by which it is achieved: in another fury of great power aggression.  The truth is that Gaddafi’s downfall, like his earlier propping up, will have been Britain’s doing. A new Libyan regime will be less legitimate and less secure as a result.

This certainly overestimates Britain’s role, but the more troubling question I have is this:  could NATO have stuck to a politically neutral humanitarian intervention by only defending Benghazi?  This exposes the flip-side of the liberal paradox/dilemma.  The safe-haven strategy might minimise the political impact of the intervention but it might also prolong and increase the humanitarian distress.  As I pointed out, this was what NATO-UN forces were criticised for at the height of the Bosnian wars.  Where I think Jenkins is right is that it was somewhat disingenuous and therefore not ideal for the coalition to be pursuing regime change under the cover of humanitarian intervention.  The question to ask, however, is why the Security Council did not table another resolution (like it did on Kosovo) to expose this.   There was no shortage of opportunity. The Security Council discussed Libya 10 times after passing Res.1973 in March.  No doubt the NATO powers would have vetoed such a resolution but that doesn’t make it pointless. The vote would have been a test of NATO’s interpretation of Res.1973 and whether the majority on the Security Council agreed that NATO was going too far.  Or was it the case that Russia or anyone else could not guarantee the votes and did not want to expose themselves?  This is not just ‘Britain’s doing’.

About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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