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Gaddafi and Libya – a case for just intervention?

Full militaristic intervention cannot be justified on the grounds that this is a ‘just war’. We are then left with the option to intervene militarily in a smaller way or not to intervene militarily at all.
Jean-Paul Gagnon
1 April 2011

Recently, we have been witnessing the turbulence of one of Africa’s most authoritarian regimes: that of Gaddafi in Libya. One distinction might be said to separate Libya from the popular risings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and other countries; that of the vitriolic response from Muammar Gaddafi in reaction to calls for greater political freedom for the pluralist citizenry of Libya, far ‘worse’ than those of other regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria.

Gaddafi’s violent reaction to the uprising of Libyans prompted calls for intervention from NATO powers and certain allies in the Middle East such as the UAE and Qatar. Across broad spectrums of the media, Libyans living outside of their country of origin have called for international intervention. Some are calling for a strict adherence to Security Council Resolution 1973. Occasionally, we glimpse displays of opposition to international intervention on the placards of European Libyan and North American Libyan protesters. This opposition can also be found in a variety of news media forums online, but it gains little attention in English-speaking media.  

The creation of a no-fly zone over Libya in an effort to protect the country’s citizenry from bombardments and other attacks from the sky has now taken place. The call to arm rebels to a greater degree so that they may defend themselves better might very well already be happening, with reported CIA groundwork under way. The UN has agreed to impose a non-unanimously-agreed set of sanctions on the Gaddafi regime and has commenced criminal proceedings at The Hague. Perhaps for different strategic reasons, Chinese, Russian and US administrations appear to have given these sanctions under international law their full approval.

Articles on openDemocracy have called for the no-fly-zone and the arming of rebels. However, there is a growing degree of ambivalence in the Libyan situation. Faced with the need to provide Libyans with a chance to proceed with their own democratization, we know that this, of course, requires peace – a peace which may well be difficult to procure unless Gaddafi and his closest supporters in government and the military leave the country to be tried for crimes against humanity and war crimes, maybe in a lengthy list of other indictments. But if coalition forces press forward with the rebels to overcome the loyalists, it could be argued that they are doing little that is different to Gaddafi’s crack-down on the opposition. If violence is anathema to democracy then, logically at least, one side taking over the other by force cannot be the answer. This type of end result is contrary to Mill’s and Kant’s ‘harm principle’.

Muammar Gaddafi has said:  

We will enter a bloody war and thousands and thousands of Libyans will die if the United States enters or NATO enters…We are ready to hand out weapons to a million, or 2 million or 3 million, and another Vietnam will begin. It doesn't matter to us. We no longer care about anything. (ABC News, March 2, 2010)

Now that a variety of military forces and financial sanctions are in place we are perhaps beginning to see the power of the Gaddafi regime crumble. But what might be the overall plan for Libya? In what is allegedly a purely humanitarian strategic operation, where is Libyan (not American, Westminster or Eurocentric) democracy in the 1-3 month plan of the UN or coalition forces?

There has been a great deal of rhetoric from other countries, whether European, North American, Arabic, or African, discussing their wants and concerns for Libya. But our focus should be on what the wants and concerns of Libyans are. Empire or domination will only disempower Libyans, and could promote another zone of disaffected individuals turning to terrorism as has been widely covered by social scientists working on Afghanistan and Iraq. What we need to do is to remove Gaddafi and his most powerful supporters in order to create a power vacuum, but at the same time create a demilitarized zone down the middle of the country, remove as many small and large armaments and munitions as possible, provide as many exit points to individuals not interested in fighting as possible, and immediately initiate a six month pre-election period wherein Libyans can decide through dialogue (not arms) whether they wish to keep their country unified, or to divide in order to seek their own sovereign destinies, democratic or autocratic.

Military moves and their reception

For Australians at least, in the wake of those other wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a range of unease when in comes to this militaristic move and its foreshadowing of military intervention. In sixty responses to an ABC moderator’s question, “Should the West intervene?” we see some in favour of intervention because of calls for help from certain individuals and constituencies in Libya; others opposed to such a move because of the recent difficulties experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq; whilst others remain ambivalent. Of course the question itself is instructive, at a time when many individuals in the Middle East (including those in Libya) are calling for movement from their own countries joined by support from many other countries not composing ‘the West.’

This is where a contemporary consideration of the ‘harm principle’ and the cosmopolitan consideration of a ‘just war’ comes in. Gaddafi’s form of rhetoric might well remind us of that deployed by Hitler and the Nazi Party before the US entered the Second World War. US involvement after Hitler’s failed invasion of Moscow led to the fall of his Nazi Party and put paid to an authoritarian war regime. But the literature also shows that once the US declared war, the genocide (final solution) of the Jewish nation grew in pace – as if in response to this action. Here we might begin to see dissimilarities between Gaddafi and Hitler. Gaddafi does not have a popular war machine backing his megalomania. Those portions of the Libyan citizenry organized for full and wide-scale opposition (primarily out of Benghazi) to oppression are not so much an underground movement as an untrained army. Because of this, the majority of casualties would probably be innocent bystanders as we have come to see in Afghanistan and Iraq. Rebel forces might eventually fall to factionalism or turn to autocratic warlordism, spelling perhaps a greater doom for Libya (envisage a new 1990s Somalia). Full militaristic intervention cannot be justified, I believe, on the grounds that this is a ‘just war’.

But does the situation warrant a ‘just intervention’? Perhaps the tactical removal of Gaddafi and key supporters after weakening him by freezing his assets and assisting a democratic mobilisation against his power would be justifiable. Some might argue that this is what allied powers are currently doing by controlling the skies, potentially roads, strategically destroying Gaddafi’s military complex, and allowing journalists to report. This might involve organizing key military leaders via peacekeepers and international mediators as well as organizing the outright support of Libya’s neighbours for the termination of his regime. This might in effect warrant a ‘black ops’ mission to remove Gaddafi for trial, permitting a popular democrat to take power.

But what is the ethical dimension of such a proposal? Where should we draw the proverbial ‘line in the sand’ regarding the harm principle? Can we see a ‘liberate and leave’ plan working as it did in Germany or Japan (although the USA has yet to fully leave)? We still see US bases in these countries with a certain level of opposition from individuals living around these areas. Is this an imaginable outcome in Libya where so many are said to have strong resentments to US or Eurocentric occupation?

What then of the idea of sending UN peacekeepers to Libya in an attempt to place a buffer between the forces loyal to the government and both those citizens wishing for peace and those citizens resorting to arms for whatever multiplicity of reasons? Wouldn’t this require a force far greater than any number of existing peacekeepers? It might also incur a large number of casualties, especially if any large force on either arms-bearing side declares war on that UN body.

We are then left with the option to intervene militarily in a smaller way or not to intervene militarily at all. The ‘black-ops’ option of taking Gaddafi and key supporters into custody for trial in The Hague is a possibility. But, should this fail, sending several individuals to their deaths could well be highly unpopular in the domestic politics of the country intervening. Perhaps the safest method is to try and use the infrastructure that exists in Libya in an effort to oust Gaddafi’s regime and bring a peaceful order permitting the dialogical processes required for democratization to happen. This would require securing communication with higher level military officers, with key bureaucrats or politicians, with leaders of rebel movements and with key religious or societal figures. Countries bordering on Libya, and those intervening at present or with interests in Libya, may well be more sympathetic to spending their money on the proper camps to deal with the plight of refugees until they can return safely when the violence burns itself out, rather than on larger-scale militaristic intervention or mobilisation.

Our main concern should be how to get peace into that country as soon as possible. There is growing concern over a possible stalemating and East/West division of Libya. But if this ends violence and gives individuals (in either camp or no camp at all) time to rest and think about their situation: how could this be considered a ‘worst outcome’? 

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