The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Libya: West Running Out of Time?

March 9, 2011

If recent reports are correct, NATO is running out of time if it wants to use a no-fly zone to tilt the balance in favor of the rebels. The Russians and Chinese may eventually agree to a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorizing a no-fly zone, but efforts to secure their agreement will take time. And it is not at all clear that a no-fly zone will prove sufficient to overcome Gaddafi’s better-trained and equipped forces.

Thus, the debate over NATO (or NATO member-state intervention) needs to explicitly include the following issues:

  • Should NATO implement a no-fly zone in the absence of UNSC approval?
  • If it should, at what point does the cost of delay outweigh the value of UNSC approval?
  • If a no-fly zone cannot save the rebellion, what further measures should NATO be willing to undertake to oust Gaddafi?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I haven’t seen a slam-dunk argument for or against various forms of more pro-active NATO intervention. But I have seen a lot of arguments against intervention that should embarrass their sources. i.e., that do not frame the moral context in terms of a tyrant attempting to eradicate a popular uprising against his regime. There are many good reasons to still reject any form of foreign intervention given that context, but arguments that implicitly rely on deferring to the popular sovereignty of the Libyan people number not among them.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.