Home / Robert Farley / Libya, R2P, and Precedent

Libya, R2P, and Precedent


Scott Horton has an interesting essay at Foreign Policy discussing the domestic and international impact of the intervention in Libya. The domestic side is mostly right; the international side, not so much:

While much of the military operations in Libya were plainly within the mandate of Resolution 1973, some aspects exceeded it. For instance, attacks fairly early in the conflict targeted command-and-control centers of the Qaddafi regime. Such steps would be routine in wartime and would plainly be authorized under the laws of armed conflict. But it’s not so clear that they were authorized by Resolution 1973, the authority of which rested on the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P): the notion, adopted by the U.N. in 2005, that intervention is justified to protect a civilian population from harm, even at the hands of its own leaders. After all, strikes were mounted against military positions far away from the attacks on civilians and with no apparent linkage to them. Moreover, as the war progressed, the posture of the fading Qaddafi regime became increasingly defensive. The final weeks of the campaign put this in sharpest perspective, as Qaddafi and his final core group of retainers withdrew to his hometown of Sirte, ultimately fleeing in a convoy that was fired upon by NATO aircraft and an American Predator drone, destroying two vehicles. Libyan authorities have denied an independent autopsy that might show conclusively the cause of Qaddafi’s death — which may have been shots fired after he surrendered and was in rebel custody — but the role played by NATO in his final moments points to the near perfect inversion of the mission. Instead of protecting civilians from attack by Qaddafi and his forces, they were attacking a fleeing and clearly finished Qaddafi.

At this point, some members of the Security Council clearly feel they got suckered. They voted for a resolution to protect the people of Benghazi from slaughter and saw their authority invoked to depose Qaddafi and install a new government. That will have consequences for future humanitarian crises. Russia and China have now blocked Security Council resolutions targeting Syria. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has made clear that Russia supports demands for reform in Syria and abhors the use of violence against demonstrators, but has been equally clear that Russia cannot risk a repeat of the Libyan example.

NATO’s operations in Libya began as a valid demonstration of the use of military force to protect civilians. But they evolved quickly into an exercise in regime change. In the wake of Libya, the Security Council is unlikely to embrace another R2P operation anytime soon. And that is bad news for the people of Damascus and Hama, as well as for advocates of the responsibility to protect.


Anyone who believed that the intervention in Libya wouldn’t involve at least an attempt to overthrow Gadhafi is either stupid or lying. With the Russians, the Chinese, and the Arab League it’s pretty obviously the latter; none of them gave a fig for Gaddafi, but they were happy to express their shock and indignation when the campaign went beyond a no fly zone. It was obvious from day one that the initiation of military operations would inevitably produce an effort to overthrow Gaddafi, although it was less certain for some time whether that effort would succeed. There was never the faintest chance that the Russians were going to allow a UNSC mandated no fly zone over Syria, a country where they have real interests, and it’s rather sad that Horton (as well as a few opportunistic neocons) believes otherwise. No criticism of the Russians intended; countries tend to defend their interests. Moreover, I’d say that there’s pretty much zero chance that the US, France, or the United Kingdom were ever going to ask for an NFZ over Syria, no matter what happened in Libya; fighting the Syrian Army and Air Force would be a much more expensive and difficult operation that defeating Gaddafi’s rabble, with the political effects much less predictable.

Moreover, what Horton seems to be asking for here is the worst of all worlds; a situation in which NATO became the militarily necessary guarantor of a Libya split between Loyalist and Rebel factions, observing a resolute neutrality regarding who was supposed to win. This interpretation of R2P would lead inevitably to the carving out of multiple statelets with minimal internal legitimacy and no ability to defend themselves. It is very difficult for me to understand how anyone would find this to be a desirable, much less an outcome that would provide a useful precedent for future action.

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