In Libya, No Ordinary Intervention


22nd March 2011

Within 48 hours of the launch of NATO military action against the Qaddafi regime, the intervention is beset by fundamental questions about the reality of regional support and its strategic objective. The Arab League has walked back from its initial calls for a no-flight zone, and is now distancing itself from the widespread targeting of Libyan installations. On Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to identify a specific endgame for military action.

At stake is far more than a successful armed action against a militarily feeble opponent. Having made the fateful and perilous choice to go to war with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the West now owes a debt to the wider — and strategically far more consequential — Arab reform movement that only an end to his regime can honor.

There is much to admire in the decision by NATO countries to intervene in the Libyan regime’s attempt to crush a popular uprising with brute force: a willingness to assist a long-repressed civilian population in its hour of existential need; a commitment, however belated, to back United Nations rhetoric of “Never Again” and the “Responsibility to Protect” with armed action; a recognition that allowing Colonel Qaddafi to reassert authority through brute force would embolden other autocrats to choose repression over reform.

Even as the precedents of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo are now being revisited for lessons both of action and inaction, it is essential that we recognize that this is no ordinary intervention.

First, if there is one thing students of intervention can agree on it is that resolutions are never enough and that action that is not decisive can be worse than no action at all. Rarely has a military campaign been undertaken with as much uncertainty about its aims, and as many declared caveats about what it would not be about (regime change) and what it would not involve (foreign occupation). Whatever the shock and awe imposed by the power of NATO’s modern armaments, surely Colonel Qaddafi can detect strategic irresolution as well as anyone.

Second, the broader context of the most important Arab reform movement in 50 years requires a far starker assessment of the price of failure. An essential — if still underestimated — aspect of the Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia was the nationalist yearning for dignity and self-respect brutally denied the men and women of those societies by decades of politically infantilizing autocratic rule. Egyptians as Egyptians — not as Arabs or Muslims or Copts — rose in defense of their nation’s past and future.

The task of remaking their countries into modern, productive, representative societies with equal rights for men and women will be hard enough for the next Arab generation of leaders. Another prolonged and bloody conflict with the West will provide the perfect excuse for Arab autocrats to change the subject — away from their own illegitimacy and corrupt rule and toward a universally felt nationalist sentiment as powerful as that of freedom.

None of this need necessarily undermine the moral and strategic validity of the intervention. But just as it demonstrates the high stakes of the war on the Qaddafi regime, it reveals — however inconveniently — the only outcome that secures both objectives of Libyan freedom and continued Arab reform without doubt: a swift end to Colonel Qaddafi’s regime.

There were plentiful reasons to think that, faced with the prospect of starting another war in the Arab world, discretion would have been the better part of valor. But having opted for intervention at a time of unprecedented ferment and change among the Arabs, London and Washington have assumed responsibility for a cause far greater than Benghazi or Misrata.

And in an irony that George W. Bush and Tony Blair would appreciate, unseating Colonel Qaddafi without the introduction of Western ground troops is likely to require a great deal more luck than wars otherwise offer. The ghost of Iraq is not that easily dispensed with.


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Nader Mousavizadeh and David Claydon founded Macro Advisory Partners in 2013 to provide a global client base with a competitive advantage in a complex world. Driven by a belief in the value of independent, long-term strategic counsel, MAP's co-founders created a firm that delivers actionable macro strategies to decision-makers in business, finance and government.

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    Jurist in Residence, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP
    Louise Arbour is a jurist in residence at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and former UN Special Representative for International Migration.
  • William Burns

    President, Carnegie Endowment
    Ambassador Burns is President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and was the 17th United States Deputy Secretary of State.
  • Mala Gaonkar

    Co-portfolio Manager, Lone Pine Capital
    Mala Gaonkar is Co-portfolio Manager at Lone Pine Capital, and a former consultant at the World Bank.
  • Vikram Mehta

    Executive Chairman, Brookings India
    Vikram Mehta is a leading Indian businessman who was Chairman of the Shell Group of Companies in India.
  • David Miliband

    President, IRC
    David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, following a distinguished political career in the United Kingdom.
  • Vali Nasr

    Dean, SAIS
    Dr Vali Nasr is Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.
  • Jonathan Powell

    Director, Inter Mediate
    Jonathan is Director of Inter Mediate.
  • Carl-Henric Svanberg

    Chairman, BP
    Carl-Henric Svanberg is Chairman of BP Plc.


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