Military action in Libya and 'liberal interventionism'

By Simon Barrow
March 20, 2011

The recent history of western military interventions in the Middle East is hardly encouraging. Yet British PM David Cameron has clearly been itching to begin the bombing in Libya, and US President Obama has also sanctioned armed action - in spite of serious warnings from advisers in and outside the White House.

As ever, the "bomb now, ask questions later" lobby has been strong in the media. The notion that realpolitik and principle are ineluctably bound together in the "liberal interventionist" position has become an ideological fixity for many.

But in a thoughtful editorial, The Nation magazine in the US, while acknowledging the case for action against Gaddafi, sets out in cogent terms why air strikes may very well make things worse rather than better. It is worth quoting in full:

[T]here are also many reasons for skepticism, and it is far from certain that the No-fly zone will not lead to other disasters. First, it is not clear that UN forces will be able to avoid civilian casualties. No-fly zones have, at best, a mixed record as a form of humanitarian intervention. Libya may not present the same military challenge as Iraq or Serbia did in the past, but the United States or allies still might have to undertake bombings and cruise missile attacks to suppress Libyan air defences; no doubt many of these are located in civilian areas. Some civilian casualties therefore seem inevitable. Even with Arab League and other regional support, the prospect of civilian casualties from US military action risks turning this into a story of American intervention. Up to now, the democratic awakening has opened up the Arab world’s future because it has been undertaken by the Arab people, who now believe they have control over their own destiny. We should avoid actions that change that narrative.

Second, even if a no-fly zone can be implemented with minimum civilian casualties, we don’t know if it will save lives or tilt the playing field toward the rebels. Air power does give Qaddafi some advantages, but a no-fly zone might do little to stop his forces from attacking and murdering the opposition using other means if he chooses to ignore or abrogate the cease-fire. And beyond grounding Qaddafi’s air force, the NFZ would not erode his other substantial military advantages; indeed, as the conflict progressed, his tanks, artillery, sea power and better-armed infantry put rebel forces on the defensive.

Third, there is a danger that a no-fly zone will distract from other measures that could be just as effective. Financially strangling the regime by cutting off all sources of money from abroad, sharing real-time intelligence with the rebels, working with others to facilitate the flow of assistance to them while stopping the flow of pro-Qaddafi mercenaries into the country, if done in cooperation with the Arab League, all have as much or more promise with less risk than does the far more dramatic gesture of a no-fly zone.

Finally, the language of the UN resolution, while it forbids "foreign occupation," is so broadly worded that many argue it amounts to an open-ended declaration of war against Libya. As is usually the case with military action, it's easy to make the argument for war with Libya and to begin hostilities; it's impossible to know when or how the conflict will end.

Indeed, there is a worrying dimension to this intervention, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy, whether alone or as part of an allied force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands. And Washington's support for military action in Libya, on avowedly humanitarian grounds, should call into question ever more sharply the cynical American acquiescence in brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain.

The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.

The full original article, 'Libya and the Dilemma of Intervention' (The Nation, April 2011) can be read online here:


Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.