If Libya Becomes Rwanda or Bosnia, We’ll Have to Intervene…


Like most of you – from Robert Gates down to just about every Westerner with memories of Iraq (and who can forget?) – I am super-wary of intervening in Libya: yet another conflict in a Muslim land, more white Christians killing brown Muslims, more US overstretch, an obvious threat of mission creep, the Iraq-style possibility that Al-Qaeda will come to fight us there in the chaos, etc. It could easily become a quagmire, a nightmare, yet another Afghanistan, etc. And regular readers of this blog will know that I think the US is badly overstretched, probably needs to get out of the ME, desperately needs to balance its budget with some defense cuts, and more generally should play a less ‘imperial’ role in the world. My own hope, like just about everyone else, is that the Libyan rebels can pull this off on their own and that Gadhafi might realize his time is up like Mubarak or Ben Ali (Tunisia).

However, in the last few days it increasingly looks like Gadhafi might not only hang on, but win. We don’t know of course yet, but we need to start thinking about what to do, if anything, in the case of a Gadhafi victory. It seems very likely that if Gadhafi retakes the east, he will butcher his opponents en masse. I don’t want to go in there anymore than anyone else, but we could be looking at massacre of thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people. Not only would the leadership elites – the Libyan National Council, the new town mayors and councils, the military and old regime guys who flipped, etc. – be wiped out brutally (imagine the torture, family killings, Gestapo tactics to come). But given that something like half the country has thrown in with the rebels, one can imagine a massive crackdown reaching deep into regular society. Think of bakers who gave their product away to support local rebels, or school principals who allowed their buildings to be used for meetings, or police officers who looked the other way as the revolt first gathered strength. Given the sheer nation-wide scale of the revolt, the post-Gadhafi victory purges could be downright ghastly – like Bosnia or Rwanda.

Yes, we have seen purges before – the PLA killed perhaps 5000 at Tiananmen Square, the Burmese junta killed perhaps 3000 in 1988, Mugabe did the same in Matabeleland in the early 80s – and did nothing. But Gadhafi could be on the verge of something yet more awful – plumbing the depths of brutality we associate with Milosevic or ‘Hutu Power’ in Rwanda. The revolt’s failure could generate extermination death-tolls we haven’t seen in 20 years anywhere. (And if you think it can’t get worse, I suppose we should be ‘grateful’ that Gadhafi is not Himmler or Pol Pot.)

My sense is then that we would just have to do something. Does anyone anywhere honestly defend the West’s realpolitik behavior toward Rwanda anymore – its too far away, would likely be a quagmire, we don’t know anything about the locals, we could be there forever? All this is true, but in the face of 800,000 dead, aren’t we ashamed? We feel no moral obligation? (If you still feel that way, go watch Hotel Rwanda again, followed by Schindler’s List, then get a morality transplant.) What is the point of NATO, Obama, human rights, etc. if we permit Rwanda, part 2? Why not just close the State Department, UN, etc. altogether?

The intellectual cover to intervene could be provided by the notion of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). And if the Chinese and Russians don’t like it, well, in the face of mass atrocities on this scale, then to h— with them. We went into Kosovo in 1999 on the basis of NATO, regardless of Sino-Russian callous, self-serving flim-flam about ‘non-interference.’ Not trying to stop butchery approaching genocidal levels, right on NATO’s doorstep no less, is a total moral abdication. This is beyond ‘realism;’ this will be an obvious, catastrophic moral failure that will rightfully haunt us all. This is a chance to stop a second Rwanda – probably the most awful event in human history since Pol Pot. I just can’t imagine that we should do nothing.

All this said, yes, we must limit our exposure. This is not Bushism – freeing the world from tyranny forever, democratic invasions, American empire, etc. This is a (very minimal) human rights-based argument in order to prevent the very worst. (This is hardly my area of expertise though; read this for a much better case.) My own sense is that the 1999 Kosovo air campaign (bombing without without ground forces) – which limited NATO exposure and helped the Kosovo Liberation Army even the odds – would be a preliminary model. Nor is this a call for immediate intervention. Maybe the rebels can still win, and it looks like we still have time to wait and see. The best outcome of all would be a rebel victory without NATO involvement. But if Gadhafi wins and a huge bloodbath ensues, we must do something…


21 thoughts on “If Libya Becomes Rwanda or Bosnia, We’ll Have to Intervene…

  1. One question I have is, is the Qaddafi family and regime really isolated now? Have the UN, EU, individual states, and corporations ceased doing business and severed diplomatic relations? Or, is Libyan oil still on the market? I know banks accounts were frozen, too. But, it seems hypocritical to contemplate military operations as business continues.


      • I thought of some problems with the Rwanda comparison. The reason Rwanda was such a bloodbath was that the world didn’t care what the Hutu-led government was doing. Aside from the history of Hutu and Tutsi conflict overlapping the borders with neighboring states, Rwanda really is sui generis.

        Libya has oil – although its percentage could be offset by Saudi Arabia easily – trains terrorists, exports arms, invades others, etc. Other countries helped Libya become the sewer it has become. The enablers need to be peeled off first, and then if Libya is still standing, we can discuss decapitation.

        Also, looking at Egypt, we need to look at the next steps. Egypt has had a peaceful transition because the US had the leverage on the right people in the government to encourage peace. Whether that continues, or if the US can apply more pressure is unknown. But, Libya needs the 99% of the regime that isn’t the Qaddafi family, and that 99% can’t be fighting the West or racked by civil war. I think NFZ are still a short-sighted solution.


    • Libya (Gaddafi) is still getting a ton of cash from its (his) oil revenue. Also, Gaddafi is not really isolated. Many African regimes (Gaddafi created the African Union, successor to the OAU-Organization of Africa States) are backing him, so is Chavez of Venezuala and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. The Syrians are in his corner too I think. The Chinese don’t care. Who knows where the Russians are with this. The only entities really taking this seriously are the US and Western Europe.


    • Where is the AU (African Union) in all of this? This is primarily and African problem and should decided by the African collective. Right?
      Here is the commnique from the African Union vis a vis the situation in Libya:

      Click to access 2011_mar_11_psc_265theeting_libya_communique_en.pdf

      I am sure that member states such as Zim, Angola, South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea (Obiang), Ivory Coast (Ggadbo), etc. are very serious. After Libya, they will reform their respective nations. The same AU that refused to act on Mugabe and even facilitated Muagbe’s contiunued reign.
      I wonder if the West provides financial support to the AU? I know that in the past the West has provided financial support for African troops operating under the AU banner. Send them to Libya.

      Dr. Bob, thanks for this post. Your anguish is really hearfelt. I agree with you, should Gaddafi previal we will see a mass retaliation. If we as a human community fail to act we will say “never again” and move on.


      • The question of the AU is an excellent one. The tragedy is that the AU replaced the OAU for exactly this reason. And here we are… and there’s nothing. Once again all the talk is about NATO, meaning in practice, the US. The best I can think of is that the US could do the lifting while the NATO states and other affiliated democraies like Korea and Japan could help pay the costs. This is what happened in the first Gulf War. This sounds coldly financial when discussing a potential Rwanda, but it might be the best way to rally some democratic action if this gets really bad…


      • I can’t even take the AU seriously. Africa is still divided along axes of pre-colonial origins and quarreling dictators. Qaddafi is one of them, and I doubt the AU will turn on their rock star.


      • Yeah, that is another good point. Gadhafi got himself elected the head of the AU awhile back and has pumped his oil money into ‘friendly’ states like Zimbabwe. This seems like the likely reason for the AU’s quiescence. The AU is probably immoblized on this.


  2. From the AU commnique line #6:
    6. Reaffirms its strong commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any foreign military intervention, whatever its form;

    They don’t want to encourage regime change (hah!)

    From the AU commnique line #13:
    13. Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.

    Yeah, taking notes on how to repress.


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  4. Saudi sends troops, Bahrain Shi’ites call it “war”

    Gulf states send forces to Bahrain following protests

    Now, this is nuts. Also, the Saudis finally commit their troops to a grand offensive. This is the battle that they have been waiting for. They might start a sectarian war at this rate. Dr. Bob, the situation is getting out of control. You were correct though. Many years ago when I was a student in your class you talked about chaos in the international order due to a non-polar world. We seem to be getting there. If history is any judge, once we hit rock bottom we might have another world war, who knows.

    And then this:
    Iran ‘using child soldiers’ to suppress Tehran protests


  5. Thanks gentlemen for the great discussion. Great points presented. Also, I stand corrected, Dr. Bob when I was your student you were Professor Bob. 🙂 Congratulations once again.

    With all due respect to the terrible devastation in Japan, what does this mean to the oil rich Gulf and North African states; and OPEC in general? Are we now more dependent than ever on oil?


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