Intervention or War in Libya?

The 2001 “responsibility to protect” report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)[i] made a clear distinction between military protection operations and war.  

With the first wave of attacks on Libyan military installations, following the UN Security Council’s unprecedented and welcome vote to authorize international action to protect vulnerable civilians in Libya,[ii] the pundits were already asking about what “the real” objectives and complaining about the lack of definition in the resolution.

But the Security Council’s action is straightforward. The objective is unambiguous – “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” The objective is not to overthrow the government of Libya, it is not only to establish a no-fly zone; it is to “protect” people who cannot protect themselves from attacks.

The resolution also calls for a ceasefire. A ceasefire with the Gadhafi regime still in control in Tripoli is a not the nightmare scenario that some commentators have suggested; rather a real ceasefire would mean civilians were not being attacked and it would present a critical opportunity for diplomacy. Some political leaders have insisted that Mr. Gadhafi must go – they are free to voice that preference, and many who favour democracy will agree, but the Security Council resolution does not mandate them to pursue that end.

If the current situation lacks clarity, that needs to be understood as an acknowledgement of reality rather than as a complaint against the Security Council. Civilians generally don’t need the protection of the international community in situations of clarity, or that are predictable and uncomplicated. The 2001 ICISS report anticipated this very uncertainty, assuming it to be endemic to protection operations. It anticipated that there would be “differences in objectives…in discussions over the ‘exit strategy,’ with some partners emphasizing the need to address the underlying problems, and others focusing on the earliest possible withdrawal.” The report also predicted that it would not be able to determine in advance how an intervention would finally play out: “Unexpected challenges are almost certain to arise, and the results are almost always different from what was envisaged at the outset” (p.59).

There was and still is no clarity on what the impact or consequences of the military attacks will be. Whether the international forces have been measured or excessive is certainly open to debate, and how effective they will be in stopping attacks on civilians is also not yet clear. What is clear is that until now the military action taken has been well short, and properly so, of a “war” on the Gadhafi regime.

One of the hardest things for weapons-laden Presidents and Generals to accept is that their military might does not confer on them the prerogative to pick winners and losers or to distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Such distinctions may be politically comforting, but rarely are they a true reflection of reality. Enough is known about the Gadhafi regime to know that it is not credibly in the “good guy” category, but there is not enough known about the opposition groups to know where they fit or the kind of regime that they would like to establish. All that can be said with some confidence is that it is the Libyan people who have to be given the opportunity to make the choices they want to make – and the current focus of the international forces is to try to allow them to make that choice without the threat of civilians being attacked.

Thus the objective is to prevent mass assaults on civilians and to reach a ceasefire. It is not to “win.” It is in that sense that the intervention in Libya to date is not a war and should not become a war. A “war” is the resort to military action for the purpose of determining a final outcome. In a war, political process is set aside and outcomes are to be decided by dint of force. Military action short of war is action that is not designed to determine political outcomes. It is not designed to circumvent politics; instead it is designed to make politics possible. It is designed to create conditions that allow for political processes to take place and through them determine political outcomes.

Success for the military intervention in Libya will be the prevention of further attacks on civilians and the creation of an opportunity for Libyans to seek political accommodation and politically determine the future of their country.

This very distinction between war and military force short of war was clearly made in the original R2P report by the ICISS. It said explicitly that protection operations are not to remove a government or to defeat a state but to protect people: “A critical factor which will impact on the intensity of operations is the need for cooperation from the civilian population once the immediate objective of stopping the killing or ethnic cleansing has been achieved. This means first and foremost not to conduct military actions which will result in widespread hatred against the intervening nations. To win the hearts and minds of the people under attack is presumably impossible during the attack but planning has to be done in such a way that not all doors will be closed when the armed conflict comes to an end. This means accepting limitations and demonstrating through the use of restraint that the operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations in that state from being harassed, persecuted or killed” (p.63).

That is wise advice. It reinforces the essential fact that the international coalition has no mandate to engineer Libya’s future. The international community has a role to play in ensuring that Libyans have an opportunity to plan their own future without suffering massive assaults and without becoming victims of crimes against humanity.

The Arab League and the African Union should both be particularly actively engaged in trying to bring the Libyan parties together in a governance arrangement that allows for a credible and participatory planning for the future.

The International Criminal Court, in a separate process, will presumably move forward in efforts to bring alleged perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice.

If there is no possibility of protecting civilians without all-out war and regime change, then the intervention itself must be questioned. All-out war for regime change has not shown itself, from Kosovo to Iraq to Afghanistan, to create environments of safety for civilians. Under the fog of war many thousands of civilians are killed and hundreds of thousands are invariably driven from their homes. That kind of action has not been mandated by the UN.


[i] The Responsibility To Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. 2001.

 [ii] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 [S/RES/1973 (2011)], 17 March 2011.

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