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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 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."

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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."

One of the leading voices in France in favor of intervention was Bernard-Henri Lévy. Mr. Lévy, who appeared on French TV as the Security Council voted March 17 on Resolution 1973, was asked what defines a "just" war.

"A war that wages war against war," said the philosopher. "The war of civilizations is over. Today, it is democracies versus dictatorships. That is what is at stake. In the case of Ben­ghazi, what is being played, at this very minute, is a race against time, a race between ... the battle of honor and courage at the Security Council, and ... the battle of terror, of the horror that Qaddafi arouses when he says he will take over the city."


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