Wisdom of Libyan Intervention

( This article is also archived at gorkhapatra.org.np )

As sixty-days deadline of U.S. Congressional authorization for military action in Libya approaches fast, the Obama administration seems to be engaged in a debate whether it is wise to intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds. Since the start of war in Libya about two months ago no unanimity is seen even in the UN Security Council despite its passage of a resolution endorsing military campaign in the country. Such differences have surfaced no less frequently in the U.S. among supporters and skeptics of Libyan intervention. The debate on the issue will be reignited in America, whose involvement in Libyan war is so crucial for its success, after May 20 when president’s deadline of unilateral authorization of military action expires.

At the end of Vietnam War in 1973 the American Congress adopted War Powers Resolution. Under the provisions of this War Powers Act, the U.S. president is required to present to the Congress for authorization of any combat operations beyond 60 days. For president Obama it will be moral obligation besides legal requirement to submit the case before the Congress because he is quoted saying in 2007, “the president does not have power under the constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation”.

It should not come as a surprise that R2P (Responsibility to Protect) the doctrine of intervening on humanitarianism is losing international support. In Libya, as the advocates of humanitarian intervention opine, the aforesaid doctrine has been applied. They were euphoric in the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1973 which endorsed the doctrine by authorizing the military action to save Libyans. Whether more lives in Libya are endangered or protected in the aftermath of enforcement of UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over the country is still uncertain.

As the Libyan crisis turns into a protracted war with no side seemingly winning the battle, the likelihood of fissures emerging among the NATO coalition partners increases. The air campaign led by the West against Libya is slowly coming under strain because some of the permanent members of the UN Security Council have started criticizing it. Their frustration at the lack of progress on the ground is becoming deeper, more so due to civilian casualties to avoid which the intervention has been launched.

At the time of resolution’s passage on March 17, 2011, the UN Security Council could not decide unanimously for understandable reasons. Veto-wielding members of the Security Council such as China and Russia did not vote for the resolution rather abstained. They displayed their uneasiness to embrace intervention on humanitarian ground.  Other non-permanent members like Brazil, Germany and India followed their suit. Germany too decided to abstain from the vote on authorizing no-fly zone in Libya, which is significant as it is a NATO member.

With increasing number of civilian casualties the Libyan intervention is facing growing scrutiny. Commenting on the loss of civilians in Libya the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, during his recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi has forewarned that NATO should not take sides in the conflict. Obviously, he is showing Russian disapproval for strikes against the Qaddafi loyalists who are civilians. Concerns have also been expressed by Brazil, China, India and South Africa demanding that NATO should comply with mandate of resolution 1973, which is to protect the Libyans. They have insisted that UN Security Council resolution has not permitted the regime change in Libya which the supporters of intervention have erroneously emphasized at times.

While the application of humanitarian intervention is displaying growing displeasure even among the members of the UN Security Council, Edward Luck, special adviser to the UN Secretary-General has said that Libya has provided a test case for R2P. According to him, “The very fact the UN Security Council invoked the responsibility to protect without any dissent is a recognition that this is becoming an accepted principle and standard for national and international behavior”. Notwithstanding this the majority of the UN members are still suspicious that weaker and smaller countries may be victimized under the cloak of humanitarian intervention.

More troublingly the controversy in Libyan intervention may be seized as an opportunity by the followers of Osama bin Laden  arguing that their grievances attributed to Western oppression remain as unaddressed as ever. The conflict in Libya, a Muslim country, is crafted by the Qaddafi regime as another assault from the Americans against the Islamic world. Coincidentally, the U.S. has been dragged though reluctantly to a war that is being fought in a Muslim country. Following the demise of Osama bin Laden , his supporters may incite violence against the Americans as they have killed a few hundred Pakistanis in reprisal. The coalition countries assembled in the Libyan war are predominantly Western, whom Qaddafi has accused of being conspirators. Such accusations only lend credence to the adherents of al Queda who try to justify their attacks against the Western interests.

The American leadership to NATO military campaign is likely to be resisted domestically in view of mounting costs involved in the war. The U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has reported that the Libyan war has cost the country $750 million. This amount though looks trivial by the standards of Pentagon but may be an issue of criticism at a time when the U.S. Congress is hotly debating budget stringency.

Much more compelling reasons for limiting the American role in ongoing war in Libya will be related to the costs of civilian lives. It is a fact that war in Libya was started to ward off anticipated humanitarian disaster i.e. which might or might not have occurred. Seemingly, the Libyan crisis is unfolding as a nasty civil war where the two factions of Libyans, loyalists and opponents of Qaddafi are killing each other. Although the advocates of the R2P doctrine have expressed optimism in the beginning, evidence in Libya shows that they may be disappointed to see more people dying because of intervention. The debate on wisdom of intervention will likely be intensified in future.

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