The myth of efficient, decisive military intervention

Protecting civilians in Libya was never going to be a simple assignment. Getting Libya on a path toward stability and a society characterized by democratic participation and respect for human rights obviously promises to be a lot more difficult. From the first attacks on Libyan dissidents, there was never any doubt that violence and the exercise of military power would be significant factors in unfolding events, but force was never going to be  decisive.

Yet, on June 27 Prof. Henry Srebrnik of the University of Prince Edward Island (Political Science) wrote in the Globe and Mail (letter to the editor) that “If the U.S. and other willing countries had attacked Libya’s armed forces, and killed or captured Moammar Gadhafi right at the start, this war would have been over within weeks. It would have been ‘illegal,’ but think of the lives and infrastructure that would have been saved.”[i]

The following response was sent by Disarming Conflict (not published): “Prof. Henry Srebrnik assures us that the war on Libya ‘would have been over in weeks’ if the US had but rejected multilateralism and attacked on its own and killed or captured Moammar
Gadhafi (“The colonel, the law,” June 27). He neglects to offer either evidence or precedents. Are these to be found in the American 2001 attack on Afghanistan, the 10 year hunt for Osama bin Laden, and a decade-old war with no end in sight? In the 2003 attack on Iraq, the 9 month search for Saddam Hussein, and the eight year and counting war that the US will now abandon as best it can? He can’t be thinking of Vietnam. Perhaps the 1983 invasion of Grenada offers the model.”

An effective response that was published came from Nick Wright of Halifax:[ii] “Political
scientist Henry Srebrnik suggests that ‘If the U.S. and other willing countries had attacked Libya’s armed forces and killed or captured Moammar Gadhafi right at the start, this war would have been over within weeks.’ He implies that the lives and infrastructure saved would have justified such an ‘illegal’ war (The Colonel, The Law – letters, June 27).  Consider the results of a recent application of his remedy by the United States and other willing countries to another tribal society – Iraq. Eight years later, Iraqis are still paying the price in bloodshed, crippled infrastructure and severe political and social
instability.”

The belief that military power is efficient and politically decisive persists, despite of the persuasive evidence to the contrary.

Military power is not a last resort that works when all else fails. When all else is failing (notably diplomacy), military power is bound to fail as well, for the simple reason that the impact of external military force depends on the context (e.g., the perceived legitimacy of the parties supported, military methods and impacts on civilians, regional confidence in intervening forces) . Of course, physical things can be demolished without regard to context – but the political meaning of such destruction depends entirely on the attending
social, economic, political, and communal circumstances. In some instances, officially
sanctioned force brings discipline and the return to the rule of law, in many others
the opposite happens.

The failure to either understand or prepare the context for military action is reflected in notable military failures that go by names such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

We’ll soon learn whether Libya 2011 joins that list.

eregehr@uwaterloo.ca

Notes

[i] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/letters-to-the-editor/june-27-letters-to-the-editor/article2076367/page2/

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