The world had little time to celebrate the triumph of Cairo before it was faced with the chaos of Tripoli. The stunning success of Egypt’s protest movement gave hope to all those who believe in the transformative power of nonviolence. The civil war in Libya is a bracing reminder that violence remains the drug of choice for the world’s dictators. That the oppressed and disorganized people of Libya responded in kind should come as little surprise.
So the international community again faces a conundrum. Should it intervene to prevent a ruthless leader from killing his own people? Or are economic and political sanctions enough? The course of action in Libya is clouded by the psychosis of its leader. To all the world, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is a madman bent on clinging to power by whatever means necessary. Yet this is the same man who in 2003 renounced his nuclear ambitions in a shrewd bid to curry favor with the West. He may not be as mad as he appears.
These are familiar questions, of course. Whether the leader in question is Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, the international community is well acquainted with the cunning of despots. Unfortunately, the proper course of action in Libya is just as unclear as it was in the Balkans or in Baghdad. In theory, experience should serve as preparation for such confrontation, but it has not done so. The varieties of evil, sadly, are infinite, and once again the United States and its allies face a multitude of uncertainties.
Questions persist even though military options are limited. As of this writing, Qaddafi’s forces are advancing on the last rebel strongholds. Meanwile, the United Nations is considering a resolution calling for a no-flight zone and perhaps more aggressive steps. Wisely, the Obama administration has indicated it will not act without multilateral support. But will it endorse military action without the imprimatur of the United Nations? The White House is wary of engaging in another conflict in the Middle East, even at arm’s length. It is also concerned that there is no obvious successor to Qaddafi among the various rebel groups. That there is no national institution, like the military in Egypt, to steer the ship of state after the revolution is also a factor.
The issue of succession is crucial. In the just war tradition, the long-term consequences of military action must be taken into account under the rubric “probability of success.” Of course, the ultimate goal of any just war is the protection of innocents, and here the tradition shares common ground with a newer set of diplomatic principles called the responsibility to protect. Endorsed by 105 nations at the 2005 U.N. World Summit, this represents a new norm of international security, and Libya surely will serve as a case study in its effectiveness. Clearly, Qaddafi has violated the first principle: that a state has an obligation to protect its people. The second calls on the international community to help states meet this obligation through “confidential or public suasion, education, training and/or assistance.” Unfortunately, the events in Libya have moved too quickly for the United States and its allies to explore this option.
The international community is now wrestling with the final element of the norm: it has an obligation to mount a “timely and decisive response.” Unfortunately, the window for a timely response may have passed. And in some quarters, questions still remain about the need for a military solution. The purpose of the responsibility-to-protect norm is to “prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Proponents of intervention argue that the Qaddafi regime has perpetrated “crimes against humanity.” Members of the Obama administration, meanwhile, have suggested that military action will not be considered unless Libya threatens to become another Bosnia or Rwanda.
The question of how much death is too much death is a vexing one to ponder. Yet that is the moral quandary the United States now faces. Mired in Afghanistan and still deeply tied to Iraq, the United States is right to exercise caution when considering military action. At this moment, with momentum in Libya shifting in Qaddafi’s favor, the calculations grow even more complex. Whether the international community succeeds in imposing a no-flight zone or not, the lessons of Libya are already starting to surface. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently, the days of large ground wars are coming to an end. At a time of smaller but persistent conflicts around the world, the U.S. military must be leaner and more nimble. Together with the United Nations, the United States should encourage nations to fulfill their responsibility to protect, and in cases where nations fail in that responsibility, the international community should respond with speed and precision. Perhaps out of the ashes of Libya a new international regime can emerge, truly dedicated to quelling conflict and restoring peace.