R2P’s ‘Time Problem’: Helping Libya, not Syria, b/c Libya Revolted First


I am participating in a scenario on what the West’s response to the Syria revolt should be. A growing number of contributors are arguing for western intervention. Proponents explicitly cite the Western intervention in Libya. I have argued against this. Another such intervention would likely split NATO, bring howls of protest from the BRICS, and the likely western interveners (US, France, Britain) are already overstretched in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These are good practical reasons (one can only do so much). But they do not alter the obvious moral question – why help Libyans, not Syrians, or by extension, Yemenis who are also dying in increasing numbers for an admirable effort for more democracy? It is ontologically horrific to say that Libyan lives are more valuable than those of other Arab (or Africans, East Timorese, etc). So why help Libya, but not others?

The most obvious answers are, unfortunately pretty coarse and strategic: Libya is close (Rwanda was far from NATO); Gaddafi is a western enemy already (so getting rid of him is a ‘twofer’ – saving lives and eliminating an nuisance); Libya has oil. But these aren’t normative answers which fit the R2P framework. They are more traditional national interest answers. Within a traditional national interest frame of security (realism) these are good answers. But the whole point of R2P is to get beyond that sort of crass maneuvering and suggest there is minimum moral benchmark of global treatment of civilians.  If we accept the R2P logic, then some kind of moral distinctions should be made beyond the ‘extras’ that we don’t like Gaddafi already or that his oil supplies the huge EU market.

I do realize that this holds constant the notion that the West should go in. R2P might easily be construed as a recipe for neo-imperialism under the guise of human rights, as clearly many think the Libyan intervention really is. To which I would say two things. First, hold this thought for the sake of the argument. Assume that multiple interventions are justified, but scarce resources limit how much outsiders could intervene. Second, I don’t actually think R2P has to become a neo-conservative gimmick to go back to US empire. It could, I suppose, but that need not happen. Remember that the UN Security Council, including Russia and China, voted unanimously for the R2P resolution (1674), as did the General Assembly. (Go here for all the details.)

So if we assume that an R2P moral framework fits the Libyan intervention, then the question of the benchmarks for intervention come up. I argued before that Libya was a unique moment because a potential massacre was brewing in Benghazi. But it is also increasingly clear that the Libyan rebels got help because they moved first. That is, they revolted earlier and more seriously than did other places in Arab Spring. This has generated a lot of hypocrisy criticism about why then we did not go into Ivory Coast, and won’t into Syria or Yemen. This suggest it is just western imperialism after all in Libya.

I don’t think so, so this why I suggest that the timing of such crises might be a justification for deciding in which to intervene and which not. Ideally, of course, under an R2P frame, all brutal repressions would be subject to the same level of moral opposition, because any human life anywhere has the same ontological value (ie, Libyans are not ‘more’ human the Yemenis or Ivorians). This is so, but the reality of scarce resources in possible interveners means that discrimination will be made, and here is where I think timing can help to reduce the ontological awfulness of not helping Ivorians or Syrians while doing so in Libya.

I bring this up, because the debate over when to apply the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine has no good answer beyond the likelihood of mass slaughter. Nexon has done a good job of laying out all the tangled issues that justified the Libyan intervention (here and here), but he still can’t really place his finger well on anything that might be coherently called an ‘Obama Doctrine.’ The problem with the ‘mass slaughter’ benchmark is that it too places an uncomfortable value on life – ‘more’ is more important than ‘less.’ That is probably right, but leaves several obvious problems: how many is ‘more’ (1,000, 10,000, 100,000)?; there are lots of slaughters globally (Darfur, Rwanda), so how do we choose (if they have oil or not?!); any high benchmark of deaths is cold comfort to the ‘few’ people who are nonetheless being machine-gunned in Syria.

So it occurs to me that one benchmark that might help is the ‘first mover one. Libya gets help, because at the time of the revolt, other repressions (Yemen, Syria) weren’t so bad at the time. This has three advantages. First, it lessens the awful moral choice of saying the Syrian lives are less valuable than Libyan lives. Second, is responsive to the context of these sorts of repressions. Instead of placing all possible repressions against one another and saying which one, why not look at them sequentially in a time series. The West cannot do everything. Even if the West wasn’t in Iraq or Afghanistan, it would still be impossible to go everywhere there are truly awful repressions. Three, it helps lessen future repressions by drawing lines that other potential repressors will have to think about crossing, even if we couldn’t intervene anyway because we are overstretched from the first one.Ie, there is a potential signaling benefit for others from helping from the first mover.

So if we accept that R2P really is a global public good, and not just a western interventionist plot, then the issue of when to deploy it comes up. Using the time sequence logic sketched above seems like a good first cut, and a far better than saying R2P kicks in only when other more important, but unstated, interests, like oil or alliances, coincide. And Libya seems to meet that. There isn’t that much oil or other western interest there; Robert Gates admitted that much.

4 thoughts on “R2P’s ‘Time Problem’: Helping Libya, not Syria, b/c Libya Revolted First

  1. Dr. Bob:

    interesting argument:
    “So it occurs to me that one benchmark that might help is the ‘first mover’ one.”
    I would disagree that Libya was the ‘first mover’. In this case the ‘first mover’ was the Ivory Coast. The rebellion, massacres and displacement of large sections of the population began long before the Arab and Maghreb uprisings.


  2. Pingback: Does it Make Humanitarian Sense to Let Libyans Fight it Out Alone? « Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: Libya Lessons (1): Don’t Gloat, but Liberal Interventionism did Work « Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: Syria Sanctions failed b/c of R2P Overreach in Libya – get out Nato « Asian Security Blog

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