How Libya's Qaddafi brought humanitarian intervention back in vogue
The notion of humanitarian intervention went dormant after the Iraq war, but has now returned, championed by many of the same countries that were the greatest opponents of invading Baghdad.
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"The Arab spring was at the core of this," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "Those people supporting intervention are thinking more broadly than Libya. They are returning to a more idealistic foreign policy after two years of realism."Skip to next paragraph
The European promise to lead on Libya also seemed to help force the American hand. As pressure grew on the United States to take action, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it wasn't a question of whether the US could enforce a no-fly zone, "The question is whether it's a wise thing to do, and that's the discussion that's going on at a political level."
"The Americans have been saying to Europe all along, 'Where are our partners?' So when the Europeans and the French came to say, 'We want to be your partner,' that shifted things," says Mr. Kupchan.
On March 24, a week after the UN Security Council sanctioned military action in Libya, President Obama said, "It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes."
In Europe, too, it was all about the Arab push for democratic reform and an end to autocracy and Qaddafi's effort to snuff it out when the uprisings started in Libya.
"The main reason the Libya intervention is seen as legitimate is not a discovery that Qaddafi is a dictator," argues Jacques Rupnik, with the Center for International Studies and Research at Sciences Po in Paris. "The intervention is plausible to people in the Western democracies by its connection to the Arab spring and nonviolent movements for democratic change. Qaddafi was trying to roll that back, and Benghazi was seen as a tipping point."
Why this is different from Iraq
But the biggest hurdle, in Europe and elsewhere, to the Western-led airstrikes in the Arab world was the Iraq war, which supporters in 2003 described at the time as an invasion with a moral imperative.
Yet while "moral intervention" was used in the "Bush Doctrine" of preemption, the circumstances in Libya are different. The invasion of Iraq did not stem from a popular uprising on the Arab street. The Arab League opposed the Iraq war. The US road to Baghdad – a unilateral effort – did not stem from the imminent threat posed to (ostensibly) pro-democracy rebels. What's more, the Iraq ground invasion was followed by foreign occupation: Both ground invasion and foreign occupation have been ruled out by the terms of UN Resolution 1973.
"Only a fool would fail to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq gave liberal interventionism a bad name," says Timothy Garton Ash, British historian and political writer. In stating a measured rationale for action in Libya, however, he argues that despite abuse of the concept, "a much more careful, law-abiding, and genuinely liberal version of it has quietly continued to develop. Building on the post-1945 tradition of human rights promotion and international humanitarian law, and working with and through the UN, this has brought us the International Criminal Court and the doctrine of a 'Responsibility to Protect,' also endorsed by the UN."