Libya and the morality of intervention

Col. Roméo Dallaire, in charge of UN forces in Rwanda in 1994, made a desperate call to NY to receive authorization to use force to protect the lives of innocent civilians. He didn’t receive it. The UN was in this central African country as peacekeepers, not peace enforcers, he was told. Shortly after that call, 800,000 people were slaughtered in a few weeks, a killing pace greater than that of the Holocaust.

With Rwanda and other similar situations in mind, in 2005, by unanimous vote, the UN adopted the policy of authorizing the use of force in the service of protection of civilians, over and beyond borders, when necessary. This is what the UN did it did in regards to Libya under resolution 1973 and thereby unleashed military forces against Muammar Gaddafi.

Only after the slaughter in Rwanda was the world ashamed of its inaction. It should have done more, but the fact was that the genocide was taking place in a remote part of the world, where the foreign press was scarce and CNN and BBC didn’t have its cameras or crews broadcasting images and stories 24 hours a day.

Not so with Libya, where hour-by-hour the story of Libyan troops killing civilians played over and over again on TVs throughout the world. Gaddafi solicited attention, held rallies, news conferences and granted interviews. Libya was front page, every day for a week and there was no doubt that with the Libyan army closing in on rebel strongholds and with Gaddafi’s bold pronouncements about what was in store for the rebels when he entered Benghazi that mass killings of civilians were about to unfold before our eyes.

In 1994, few outside diplomatic circles knew about the impending slaughter in Rwanda; in 2011, anyone with a TV knew what was in store for Libyan protesters.

I agree with University of Delaware’s Muqtedar Khan, who wrote, “Ignoring Gaddafi’s promise of massacre would have been a crime against humanity. While other countries may have an appetite to tolerate mass murder, the U.S. cannot. It is true that we cannot afford another war; it may bankrupt us financially. But ignoring crimes against humanity will bankrupt us morally.”

Two moral arguments have been used against the Libyan intervention. The first is that moral principles need to be applied consistently and the principle of protecting the innocent is not by Western powers. We stand by while governments take reprisals against civilians in Bahrain and Yemen, for example. But this argument is weak. An all or nothing proposition simply doesn’t hold up in a complex world where you do what you can, when you are able, while trying to predict the consequences as best you can, knowing full well that predictions are notoriously inaccurate.

It is important for military action to have international support and in this instance, the support of Muslim countries in particular, token as that support may be. Muslims countries aren’t willing to take the same action against others regimes. Without such support, any military action would have been labeled, as some have already done, as a western imperialist crusade to maintain access to important oil fields.

The second moral argument against the Libyan action is a pacifist one. Violence only begets violence. While the action may start out with the intention of protecting civilians, it will lead only to greater deaths of the very people it is designed to protect. There is much truth in this position, but it isn’t always true or, to put it more finely, we can’t really know if it is true or not. Who knows how many Gaddafi would have murdered if he hadn’t been stopped? Who knows how many civilians will be killed in trying to stop him? The analogy to this situation, on a small-scale, is the dilemma faced by SWAT teams when a hostage is taken. Doing nothing will most likely lead to the deaths of innocent people and so may trying to disarm the hostage taker.

So action in Libya to stop the imminent deaths of civilians was warranted from an ethical point of view. Continuing the action beyond its initial and limited scope may not be. If the war continues for more than a few weeks and the mission becomes deposing Gaddafi, another discussion needs to take place and a new set of ethical considerations need exploration. Resolution 1973 doesn’t authorize all and every action.

But behind all of these ethical consideration is another moral issue and here the West is the culprit. For the weapons that Gaddafi uses against civilians were sold to him by Britain and France, more than $470 million worth of weapons in 2009 alone. Reportedly, the US was recently negotiating a weapons deal with Libya for $77 million.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute documents that Washington accounted for 54 percent of arms sales to Persian Gulf states between 2005 and 2009. Last September, the Financial Times reported that the U.S. had struck deals to provide Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman with $123 billion worth of arms.

Arms sales may be good for business and it may even generate jobs at home, but it isn’t ethical justifiable when dictators oppress their own people and line their own pockets by using those very weapons we have sold or given to them.

It becomes ethically unconscionable when we then spend more money on our military in order to put a stop to the misuse of those same weapons by the people we sold them to.

The net result of this business is that arms dealers get richer, poor people are oppressed, the military consumes a large part of our budget, and we then cut back on funding for schools, reduce public workers’ salaries, and neglect our infrastructure, health care, job creation and other social services.

The complex ethical situation in Libya is what it is, in part, because of the dubious ethical decisions made by Western countries in the past and continues to this day in other countries run by corrupt dictators.








3 thoughts on “Libya and the morality of intervention

  1. I find the “no to U.S. imperalism!!” argument to be so hackneyed and lacking solid support. This presents a very nuanced approach, much appreciated. Of course, a very skeptical approach has to be taken to any intervention–the US and NATO don’t have a great track record in leading to better situations in troubled countries…also Thinking about Kosovo and the use of cluster bombs etc.
    I think here the key will be to draw out the Arab and/or non-Arab Muslim allies that have already pledged war planes like UAE and make this “their” intervention. Turkey also is no on board, which bodes well.

  2. Interesting perspectives. The view from Europe is not as unified as it might sound. Those prohibited to produce and sell arms (Germany) are opposed to intervention, while those who happily maunfacture and sell arms (France & the UK) are more then happy to send in the planes. It must be noted that both France and the UK have huge economic problems at home and leaders with falling ratings. Brits and French are questioning if this is an ethical issue or one of attention drawing? After all even CNN seems unable to cover more than one story at a time!

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