Brief thoughts on Libya and ‘No Fly’ Zones

As Colonel Gaddafi escalates his determined effort to cling to power with heavy firepower, calls are growing for an internationally enforced no-fly zone to prevent slaughter of civilians.

Readers of OFB won’t be surprised to hear that I’m temperamentally uneasy with interventions in the civil wars of other nations. But rather than weigh in on the case for or against the intervention, which others are doing well, I thought I’d quickly note two concerning aspects of the debate.

First, if this does go ahead, its important to realise the weighty implications of such a move. Because a no fly zone is effectively an operation using air power to deny or constrain air space to others, it is tempting to conceive of it as a technical and uncomplicated thing that just requires political will. Get international backing, and its ‘do-able.’

But we should recall from Iraq what it can entail. If Qaddafi were to hold onto power- and he just might- and if we take the position of the UK Prime Minister that we must not tolerate a tyrant killing his own civilian population, then this could expand into a diplomatic commitment of far greater magnitude. Effectively, those Powers doing the heavy lifting would come to ‘own’ the problem of Libya, not only assuming responsibility for policing the skies above important strategic ground, but taking on the role of overseeing the state as a ward of the international community.

And, as a clever colleague of mine remarked recently, our rhetoric of sudden, absolute intolerance of autocrats tyrannizing their own people would bind us to the mission, making disentanglement or disengagement very difficult indeed.

Unfortunately for Libyans, history suggests that when we intervene in civil wars in the name of human rights, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, we often see the conflict through a lens of predators versus victims. Under our own ‘overwatch’, reprisals, counter-cleansing or violent retaliation could take place.  Moralism in foreign policy makes it difficult to recognise the dynamics of what we are actually dealing with, which is a civil war to control the machinery of state power- the oilfields, the seat of government, the ability to tax and make law.

So if we are seriously considering a move of this kind, we need to be aware of what we are getting ourselves into: a potentially long-term diplomatic entanglement that could easily facilitate other human rights violations.

Secondly, there is the issue of international law. As I’ve argued before, the notion that wars are only legitimate if they achieve the unanimous agreement of the permanent members of the Security Council is suspect. Whether the US or China agree with something should not exhaust the argument, and they themselves have historically bypassed UNSC consensus when it has suited them. The absence of a supreme world governing authority with the power to police the world and enforce law consistently means that we live in a state of anarchy, where powerful states violate laws when they believe it is warranted and can get away with it, and it is hard to respect a notion that is only selectively applied to defeated or weaker states and only obeyed by the powerful when it suits them.

Nevertheless, a range of critics of the disastrous Iraq war endlessly remind us that it was ‘illegal.’ And it probably was, though a properly constituted court is the only true forum where illegality can be judged. But if so, Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia to end the genocide was also illegal, our intervention in Kosovo was, and a no-fly zone over Libya without Chinese and Russian agreement will probably be too.

Those who have insisted ever since 2003 that states must strictly adhere to international documents no matter what must now recognise how lethal that position can be: an anticipated failure to get UN approval for an intervention would prevent it, and many Libyans could die as a result. Where do ‘no illegal wars’ critics stand when strict legality collides with the cause of human rights? Suddenly the morally absolute position which they took over Iraq looks harder to sustain. It will no doubt occur to Nick Clegg, as he endeavors to discover what he thinks about these events.

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