On Sunday, the one-year anniversary of the declaration by Barack Obama of American military intervention in Libya passed without much notice. The reason Obama and NATO gave for their undeclared war on Moammar Qaddafi was the “responsibility to protect” civilian populations from military force by the dictatorship, known as R2P, and to free Libya from the grip of the tyrant, which was supposed to produce an orderly transition to a democratic government. As Daniel Larison points out, that hasn’t exactly come to pass. Instead, competing militias run Libya, and now guns are flowing into Mali — which threatens to destabilize a key Western ally in the war against al-Qaeda:
But the Libyan war’s worst impact may have occurred outside of Libya. The neighboring country of Mali, which also happens to support U.S. counter-terrorist efforts in western Africa, has been roiled by a new Tuareg insurgency fueled by the influx of men and weapons after Gadhafi’s defeat, providing the Tuareg rebels with much more sophisticated weaponry than they had before. This new upheaval benefits al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and the Tuareg uprising threatens the territorial integrity of Mali. The rebellion has also displaced nearly 200,000 civilians in a region that is already at risk of famine, and refugees from Mali are beginning to strain local resources in Niger, where most of them have fled. “Success” in Libya is creating a political and humanitarian disaster in Mali and Niger.
The R2P principle isn’t faring well either:
Paradoxically, the Libyan war and its aftermath have had the unintended consequence of undermining the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) that was originally used to justify the intervention. Many advocates of intervention believed Western involvement would strengthen the norm that sovereignty may be limited to protect a civilian population from large-scale loss of life. Instead, the Libyan intervention helped discredit that idea.
A key requirement of the “responsibility to protect” is that intervening governments assume the “responsibility to rebuild” in the wake of military action, but this was a responsibility that the intervening governments never wanted and haven’t accepted. All of this has proven to skeptical governments, including emerging democratic powers such as Brazil and India, that the doctrine can and will be abused to legitimize military intervention while ignoring its other requirements. The Libyan experience has soured many major governments around the world on R2P, and without their support in the future, it will become little more than a façade for the preferred policies of Western governments.
Thus stands the real absurdity — the choice to apply R2P in Libya. Qaddafi was certainly a tyrant, and wanted to conduct massive military action against his own people to keep his regime from collapsing. But Qaddafi was at that time no acute threat to the Western governments who toppled him through the lengthy bombing campaign. On the other hand, Syria’s Bashar Assad helps Iran run two terror networks in Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which aim at Western interests in the region, and who is now conducting the exact same kind of campaign that Qaddafi threatened — with the Western governments not lifting a finger to stop it.
I’m not arguing for military intervention in Syria, which might have produced the exact same consequences as it did in Libya (and as the diplomatic intervention did in Egypt) by putting radical Islamists in charge. Even if we wanted to stage such an intervention, we have neither the resources nor the political credibility to do so after the embarrassingly lengthy NATO campaign in Libya and Western reluctance to deal with the consequences of the aftermath. However, if we had thought about the long-term consequences of intervention in both Libya and Egypt a year ago, we might have held our strength for a place where it mattered most and where it might have done some good — Syria, or even Iran. Instead, we’re perceived as so weak and ineffective that Russia felt bold enough to land troops in Syria to support Assad in the guise of “anti-terror” units.
Small wonder no one wanted to talk about the one-year anniversary of this intervention.
“We call for the immediate restoration of constitutional rule in Mali, including full civilian authority over the armed forces and respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions,” the White House said in a statement.
The disaster continues.