Intervention in Libya? A case of shooting from the hip, slowly

Politicians and public need to address the moral argument around the use of force, encompassing the humanitarian and democratic arguments deployed in favour of intervention balanced against risk aversion and moral objections.
Dan Smith
10 March 2011

This piece is paired in opposition with an article by Rupert Read, in which he argues that the British have a duty to back a no-fly zone over Libya.

Only ten days ago, when UK Prime Minister David Cameron put up the flag for a no-fly zone over Libya, nobody saluted. Now the British and French are drafting a UN Security Council Resolution. After all, you cannot just sit and watch the dictator wield overwhelming force so he and his disgusting son can hang onto power and not think something should be done to stop him. True enough – but you should think very, very carefully about what can and should be done.

I fear that the western powers are slowly reaching out to press the default button. In this sort of case, that means help the victims, use a bit of force to hold the bad people in check, and find a winner to back. It’s a sort of slow motion shooting from the hip. It’s almost instinctive but it’s also hesitant. In part, that’s because of the fear of repeating Iraq, orAfghanistan, or Iraq the first time round. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that anybody who again proposes sending large US ground forces into action in Asia or the Middle East needs to have their head examined (he said it to US Army cadets too, which makes it official).

Of course, enforcing a no-fly zone does not entail a large ground force intervention but there is something called a slippery slope and we’ve been on it before. For a decade before US forces finally invaded Iraq in 2003, there was a no-fly zone over both southern and northern Iraq. Both zones were initially imposed to protect the people from the viciousness of Saddam Hussein’s response to popular uprising. It is extraordinary and unsettling how much precedent there is.

Western leaders may have to make ringing endorsements about where things are headed in Afghanistan but everybody knows that western policy is not in a confident place right now.

Drive-by intervention

Fear of large scale intervention combined with the urge to do something, even without clarity about exactly what, raises the possibility of 'drive-by intervention', as a participant in a conference I was at last week neatly called it. And one of the things that the term captures with its mockingly flip tone is the fact that the idea of painless intervention is a myth.

To enforce a no-fly zone you need air power, satellites and look-down radar. You will get into combat and it is likely some of that will be over Libyan soil. Which leads to the all too likely prospect of at least one shoot-down by Libyan air defence, which in turn means captured air crew displayed for the media.

With that, following the playbook Saddam Hussein wrote up, Qaddafi can simultaneously pull out a few emotional stops at the expense of the intervening powers and show the Arab ‘street’ that he is an authentic national leader resisting yet another round of foreign intervention in Arab affairs.

Alternatively, of course, in the effort to avoid that, imposing a no-fly zone would mean destroying Libyan air defences including radar with relatively widespread attacks, risking unintended damage and casualties among Libyans.

The Myagi Principle

It is hardly surprising that, faced by Qaddafi’s air power, the Libyan opposition has come out in favour of the no-fly zone. But it is extremely unlikely that what they want is a drive-by intervention. If no-fly doesn’t work, they are almost certainly hoping the West will take another step down the intervention slope. But there’s a problem. Can the West’s commitment be relied on?

I hope I will not be thought flippant if I express my point by reference to Mr Myagi, the mentor in the film Karate Kid. For one big lesson in the brief history of what has come to be called (and sometimes derided as) ‘humanitarian intervention’ is the lesson of life that Mr Myagi teaches his pupil, Daniel. Paraphrased, what Mr Myagi says is, Do karate or don’t do it, but don’t half do it.

So with intervention, do it or don’t do it, but above all don’t pretend there is a cheap and easy version. Because all too often, intervention light is either the top of the slippery slope or an ineffective gesture that serves only to worsen the autocrat’s eventual vengeance. If you are going to do it, be prepared to go the whole way. After Iraq and Afghanistan, in the light of what Defense Secretary Gates has said, knowing what we know about political realities and uncertainties in the US and Europe, just how likely is it that the West will respect the Myagi principle? 

Arguments for and against

So what are the main arguments for and against forceful intervention in Libya?

For, I think there are three basic ones:

▪  Humanitarian: to care for the victims of the current fighting, and in longer perspective to end the suffering of Libyans under the dictator.

▪  Democratic: to support Libyans who want to make a better life for themselves.

▪  Power: to re-stabilise the global oil economy, get a western-leaning leader installed, and make a generally impressive display of western power.

In political discourse, these motives get served up in various blends, sometimes with one being used to mask another, but all are present.

Against, I see five basic ones:

▪  Risk aversion: seeing a no-fly zone as the first step towards a large scale intervention, with human and economic costs that are much too high, and which the risk averse think may well fail anyway.

▪  Lack of capacity: because it seems we don’t know how to do it; even a small mission with a couple of helicopters goes wrong and ends up with British Special Forces arrested by farm guards in the middle of the night.

▪  Moral objection to the use of force, even in a good cause: too much can go wrong and too much harm can be done.

▪  Passivity on the basis that the affairs of other countries are no business of ours in any case; let them get on with it.

▪  Sovereignty: Libya is a sovereign state and whatever we do must be constrained by that simple if often inconvenient fact.

Again, these objections can be served up in different mixes and the most actively articulated objection may not always be the most deeply felt one.

Two separate if related core issues are at stake here. One of them is the question of sovereignty and politics. This encompasses the second and third of the arguments in favour of intervention (support democracy and exert power) and the fifth argument against (don’t intervene in sovereign states’ affairs).

The moral argument around the use of force

What I would like to address here is the moral argument around the use of force, encompassing the humanitarian and democratic arguments deployed in favour of intervention balanced against risk aversion and moral objections. For those who are not completely pacifist in their approach to this kind of question, there are always dilemmas and case-by-case uncertainties to sort out.

Although each case differs from the next, however, there are some general principles that can be referenced, even by those of us who exist in the moral grey zone where force is not always wholly bad. The most important may be the precautionary principles of the Just War tradition: only use force as a last resort, be sure success is likely, and do not do so much damage that it outweighs the good in the intended outcome.

Last resort is the starting point of this argument. It is a long established moral principle and a couple of hundred years ago, Samuel Johnson expressed it rather well: “He may be justly hunted down, as the enemy of mankind, that can choose to snatch, by violence and bloodshed, what gentler means can equally obtain.”

Johnson + Myagi

Add Myagi and Johnson together and the conclusion that emerges is along the lines of, Don’t use force unless you absolutely have no alternative, and then do it properly.

Or: Don’t opt prematurely to use a military instrument that is a long way short of certain to get the job done.

But it is precisely this latter which western leaders seem now to be doing.

With the added risk that, by reaching so slowly for the hip, they are giving Qaddafi ample warning of what might be coming at him, so that he will pour on the pressure to get the action over before intervention is ready, and will himself be very ready if and when the intervention starts.

It is not a pleasant prospect.

See the full post on Dan’s blog.            

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData