The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Begging to differ on Libya and R2P

February 12, 2012

In a reflective post not long ago, Robert E. Kelly noted:

“…we are elated that the Libya operation worked, (against all odds given the Iraq experience and what we know about foreign intervention in LDCs generally). Lots of Duck writers supported the intervention. (I found Jon Western’s arguments last spring particularly persuasive; some of my writing on Libya is here and here.) Even if you didn’t support it, and worried that it meant more ‘empire,’ it still tugged at your heartstrings to see Libyans fighting and dying against a nasty tyrant. So you probably supported the NATO intervention even though you didn’t want to.”

Robert is probably right that most Duck writers did respond this way. Personally, I didn’t.

For a start, isn’t it a little premature for students of world politics to be declaring victory? Isn’t that the kind of simplistic triumphalism that we are supposed to mock George Bush Jnr for? Who is to say that the feuding coalition that has come to power will not itself become authoritarian, or oppressive, or violently divided? And if that does happen, we will be directly implicated. Libya demonstrates, as if we needed more proof, that conflict is a continuum, that straddles the binary war/peace divide, and that civil strife leaves every participant unlovely.

My own objections to the war were based firstly on a sense that far from ‘standing by’ while the oppressed were slaughtered, Western nations were labouring under great burdens. Trying to extricate themselves from a losing struggle in Afghanistan and a tragic one in Iraq. Trying to survive a debt-deficit crisis that threatened to overwhelm Euro-Atlantic economies. Dealing with rising unemployment and decaying infrastructure. All of these tasks were morally serious ones.

Moreover, I feared we were under-estimating the complexities of what we were taking on in north Africa, and that a discrete and limited campaign would grow like a cancer, well beyond our limited means. As it happens, I was a little over-pessimistic – but there wasn’t much sign that the governments in London or Paris had thought hard about what to do if the stalemate endured.

What about saving victims? From the outset, I feared that NATO was not just protecting the innocent from predators, as the mainstream media so simplistically suggests. It was taking a side in a civil war. It was not obvious that there was about to be another genocidal atrocity on the scale of Srebrenica, as proponents of intervention sometimes suggested. And more likely that not, in intervening to prevent an atrocity, objectively it would become an accessory to counter-atrocities. Its happened before. Credible reports of illegal detentions, torture and dispossession of black Africans in Libya suggest that fear was not unfounded.

Unlike what seems to be the thrust of R2P good intentions, the first principle is surely Do No Harm. We have played a decisive role, it would seem, in turning Libya into a country unsafe for black people to live in. Are we supposed to rejoice at this? Should the Assad regime fall in Syria with our assistance, who is to say, for example, that the country’s Arab Christians will not feel the blade?

Proponents of intervention invoked moral obligation so intensely, and (at times) accused opponents of being amoral men of stone. It is only fair to hold pro-interventionists to their own lofty standard.

I also was uneasy with intervention because of the dangerous utopian paradox that Robert so nicely identifies:

“It is awfully tempting to think that just a little bit more exertion, a little more defense spending, a little more covert assistance could help push through desperately needed change in places like Syria or Zimbabwe…

 But that’s exactly the ‘utopian’ attitude toward force that realists from Morgenthau to Walt would disparage, right? One small step leads to another to another, and pretty soon you’ve got US empire to handmaiden democracy everywhere all the time, with all the militarization, killing and other unintended consequences such a project must inevitably entail.”

Exactly that. A programme of regular, well-intentioned military interventions – a continuous project of liberal crusading, in fact – certainly would and does have tragic unintended consequences.

It must and does affect international security more widely, and any serious reckoning with the rights and wrongs of intervention should not happen in a strategic vacuum. Regularly overthrowing tyrannical regimes has made it very attractive indeed for the likes of Iran and North Korea to accelerate their nuclear programmes and move closer and closer to the actual bomb. If war accelerates nuclear proliferation and a spiral of international insecurity, then it has had a potential tragic consequence.

Fighting wars regularly breeds a growing expectation that one will intervene again. Will this not give false hope to some oppressed peoples that if they rise up, an external power will ride to the rescue?

Moreover, a country cannot be constantly at war without such a condition damaging its constitution and its values. It has led to a dangerous expansion of state power. It has fuelled human rights violations. It has created an imperial presidency. And it leads other states to look constantly back to the American superpower to do the fighting and shoulder the burdens of fighting. It is precisely an objection to spreading democracy violently abroad that it will erode democracy at home.

I’ll shut up with this:

On January 26, humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres said it had stopped its work in detention centers in the city of Misrata because its medical staff were being asked to patch up detainees mid-way through torture sessions so they could go back for more abuse.


Literally, NATO’s war helped bring that about. You could call it many things, and maybe it will all work out for the best. But if it was a war for human rights, ‘Victory’ is a stretch.

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Patrick Porter is Professor of International Security and Strategy at the University of Birmingham. He is also Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London. His research interests are great power politics, grand strategy, realism, the causes and consequences of major powers’ decline, the Iraq war of 2003, foreign and defence policy in the US and UK, and the intellectual life of major powers and their foreign policy establishments. He has written four books. His book Blunder: Britain's War in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the British Army Military Book of the Year Prize, 2019. His most recent book is The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity, 2020). He also wrote The Global Village Myth: Distance, War and the Limits of Power (Georgetown University Press, 2015) and Military Orientalism: Eastern War through Western Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2009.