Libya and the Threshold for War

18 April 2011, 0833 EDT

Some questions about Libya.

To clear the decks, I’m instinctively uneasy with international interventions in civil wars, given the historical difficulties of keeping such interventions limited and the unintended consequences and moral hazards of such undertakings. Not to mention the burdens that states like the US and UK are now shouldering, with the constraints and pressures on our statecraft after Iraq and with Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, and the need to preserve what Walter Lippmann called a ‘surplus’ of power in reserve.

But the general strategic context aside, this post is about one specific issue flowing through it all: following on from Jon Western’s excellent post on Libya and the dynamics of wartime atrocities, there is clearly an unsettled issue here of what the threshold for war ought to be. On both moral and prudential grounds.

 By virtue of the fact of our intervention, we will never know what was going to happen in Benghazi. It seems there is little evidence that there was a plan for a ‘wholesale massacre’ or a ‘bloodbath‘, that would have taken ‘tens of thousands of lives.’

Equally, a civil war of that nature can produce massacres more spontaneous and smaller. So while there isn’t much evidence that the luckless folk of Benghazi were due for an atrocity on the scale of Srebrenica, a killing on the scale of Peterloo wasn’t impossible, as one smart interventionist reminded me the other day.

Alternatively, the brute fact was that an authoritarian regime’s forces were closing in on outgunned and outnumbered rebels, had threatened armed opponents with vicious language, and were heading towards a city. If Jon is right, this are conditions ripe for atrocity. If a bloodbath was even possible, to what extent is anticipatory intervention justified?

The issue here isn’t whether the Libyan regime is repressive or whether civilian innocents would be in grave danger in a setting of urban combat. If that was a sufficient basis for intervention, it would make the threshold for intervention irresponsibly low.

The question is whether Qaddafi’s forces were about to behave so brutally, however premeditated or circumstantial their behaviour, that the regime would be guilty of exceptional barbarity. Warfare can only really be justified if it is waged to create a better state of peace that is proportional to the suffering it inflicts, in Liddell Hart’s words.

This matters on the calculus of doing harm versus doing good. After all, if the magnitude of civilian suffering was likely to be far lower than the US, the UK, France and their supporters argued, at what point is it atrocious enough to override the likely deaths that follow from international intervention in civil wars?

One difficulty with liberal interventionism is the tendency (though not a universal one) for liberal hawks to characterise civil wars as clashes between predators and victims with the civil war dynamics overlooked, and to look past the wildness of war that slips easily off its leash to become not a tool of pacification but a force that can prolong and even radicalise a pre-existing conflict.

We do have foreknowledge that military intervention will result in innocent deaths. Particularly where the outside forces use standoff weapons and only have limited intelligence, it is almost certain that they will kill civilians.

In terms of higher politics, interventions ‘on the cheap‘ that lack the power to seize territorial control can prolong a conflict into a grinding stalemate, which is not necessarily a liberating experience for the inhabitants.

And victims can be strategic and brutal as well. The prospect of intervention can be exploited as the tail wags the dog. I don’t mean this pejoratively – its an observation about the understandable desire for weaker sides to internationalise conflicts to correct a power imbalance, and the problem of ‘moral hazards‘ is a theme taken up by Alan Kuperman amongst others.

None of these drawbacks necessarily means interventionism is always wrong. But for this distant observer, it does mean that the threshold for stepping into such a conflict should be very high.

Does Libya meet that threshold? Do my generic reservations about interventionism even apply in this case?