Does it Make Humanitarian Sense to Let Libyans Fight it Out Alone?


Regular readers know that I supported the Libyan intervention primarily on humanitarian grounds. For my writing on Libya, please try here and here. My big concern was that the fall of Benghazi might initiate a massacre like Srebrenica. If a limited intervention could forestall that, I think it was justifiable. To critics who said this was duplicitous, because we did not intervene in Ivory Coast or Syria, my response was that Libya moved first (its problems were presented earlier), which matters in a world of scarce resources with limited knowledge of the future. Also, Libya was proximate to NATO making it that much easier and so more morally compelling. This is hardly an air-tight case; Libyan lives are no more ontologically valuable than Syrian or Ivorian. But there are limits to what outsiders can do; and I thought Libya pretty well met the nexus of limited western capabilities – badly restricted by American military overstretch and degraded European militaries – and the clear humanitarian imperative raised when Gaddafi and sons started ranting about ‘rivers of blood’ and ‘hunting the rebels like rats, alley by alley.’ Non-interventionists retort that a massacre was not actually likely, but I disagree with that assessment.

A much stronger argument raised by non-interventionists directly challenges the humanitarian rationale. This argues that civil wars that stalemate, as Libya’s has now, actually produce more death and destruction over time than quick, definitive endings. I don’t have any particularly good cite on this, but generally I find that Max Hastings at the Financial Times, Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy, and various authors at the National Interest have leaned in this direction on Libya. In passing, I should say that I find all these authors to raise excellent points. Their analysis is worth your time and vastly more professional and serious than the partisan and uniformed commentary coming from Congress and the GOP presidential field. If you want to know why Libya is a mistake, read Walt or Hastings; don’t waste your time with FoxNews or Newt Gingrich.

So if the Libyan civil war drags on for years, with hundreds of thousands killed, does that mean it would have been better for Gaddafi to win early, and ‘only’ kill ten thousand? This strikes me as quite strong (and humane, albeit macabre) logic. Here are three possible responses:

1. Any comparative body counts (yes, it is that ghoulish to say so, but this is what murderous thugs force on us) must account for all the violence Gaddafi would also inflict on Libyans in the wake of his victory and restoration of the old order. In other words, it is not enough to say that Gaddafi would kill fewer than the civil war would, therefore his victory is better, because Gaddafi would end up killing many more in the future, presumably, in order to re-bolster his police state. These future murders and persecutions must be included with the casualties of a Benghazi massacre on the interventionist side of the ledger.

2. At the time of intervention (mid-March), it was not possible to seriously predict that the civil war would drag on. Indeed, even now, no one really knows how long this will go. Gaddafi could fold at any time; defections keep happening; the rebels do seem to be, slowly, clawing back. Even Walt agrees that Gaddafi is probably on his way out. This lowers the probability of a much higher body count from a civil war, because we don’t really know how long it will, in fact, last. On the hand, the probability was pretty high that a Gaddafi victory in Benghazi would lead to a massacre.

In the end, the only way to definitively know is post-hoc, which means we must estimate at the pre-hoc time of decision. We can only say if the intervention was humanitarianly beneficial after the war ends. If it does take 5 years and 250,000 dead, we will then look back in 5 years and concur that it was an error. If it ends next week, we won’t. By way of example, look at our thinking on Iraq 2. In 2003, the Bush people promised a blitzkreig like Desert Storm. We were to be liberators with a quick ‘mission accomplished’ and home by Christmas. Like many, I (foolishly) believed this narrative also and supported the Iraq War. In retrospect, this was a terrible error for which I feel ashamed and for which students regularly criticize me, but I (and many others) only knew that clearly by, say, 2005/06. (How Bush can still say he would do it all over again is just beyond me.)

Like so many, I thought the Bush people had actually planned something for Iraq after the victory, especially given that it was a war of choice with lots of time to plan and think. And indeed, if Iraq 2 had gone as Iraq 1, Bush 2 would be hailed as one of America’s great presidents. Unfortunately, decisions can’t be made with full information at the time, and looming massacre in Benghazi forced a rapid decision on Obama. This is the real distinction between Obama’s Libya forced intervention decision and Bush’s Iraq war of choice. Obama had little time to prepare, and so inevitably the operation is clunky and rushed; Bush, by contrast, had months of time to plan Iraq and its aftermath (plus the years spent on the Future of Iraq Project) and clearly didn’t do it. This is why I reject Walt’s comparisons of the Libyan war to Iraq 2.

So Obama had to make the best choice at the time and with time pressing dramatically. And while it is true that Iraq should have served as a cautionary against charging in, it is also true that Bosnia and Rwanda should have served as a cautionary against doing nothing and that Kosovo presented a possible model for how NATO airpower could help tip the local balance. The analysis, because it must be predictive, is messy and imprecise, and if Libya becomes Iraq 2, we will all be chastened as we were after Iraq 2 turned into a bloodbath. But remember that we were also all chastened after Rwanda also turned into a bloodbath. We felt ashamed we did nothing and promised to try harder the next time. This is that next time.

3. Finally, I am not sure how much I buy it that quickly resolved civil wars are in fact for the best. This post was motivated by this story at the Economist on the end of the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a good parallel with Libya, because it was a civil war that dragged on endlessly, killing thousands over decades and regularly debilitating Sri Lanka’s ability to develop and normalize. I think this is why everyone looked away as the Singhalese army basically wiped out the Tamils with inevitable end-massacre. Everyone just wanted it to end, and this seemed like the final closure the world wanted on an awful, endless problem that know one really knew how to resolve. One victor, completely triumphant and imposing a peace that might eventually mature, seemed better than years and years further of more of the awful same. James Fearon’s work on civil wars suggests this too: the best way to end them is a definitive victory by one side or the other. The American civil war would be a case in point, and definitive end of secession was clearly behind Lincoln’s tacit endorsement of Sherman’s scorched earth policy in the South. The Singhalese provided such an end in Sri Lanka, and NATO intervention probably stopped this outcome in Libya.

But note also the extraordinary cost the Economist notes of the Singhalese victory. Does anyone really feel comfortable advocating that? If tens of thousands of guaranteed Libyan deaths prevent possible hundreds of thousands of future Libyan deaths, how does one possibly morally choose among those alternatives? Who wants to say to the residents of Benghazi (or the Tamils), you must die for the ‘greater good’ of society? There are examples of fragile peace between the sides of a civil conflict (Bosnia today, or Cyprus) that manage to avoid the ‘eliminationist’ logic that one side needs to win in order to finally stop the killing. And who wants to make such an awful, unbelievably cold-blooded decision? Who could sleep at night endorsing this? Bill Clinton cannot.

4 thoughts on “Does it Make Humanitarian Sense to Let Libyans Fight it Out Alone?

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