As they advocated military action in Libya, interventionists argued the following: to put down a rebellion and consolidate his rule, Colonel Gaddafi’s forces were about to carry out a massacre of civilians in Benghazi. We could not stand idly by and allow this to happen. Western air power would prevent a slaughter, tip the balance of the conflict in the rebels’ favour, and give a fighting chance to the emergence of a new, liberal order and civil society. According to the Foreign Secretary Hague, a substantial and serious man, the rogue ruler Gaddafi did not have long to reign.
Many of these positions seem increasingly untenable. It turns out that we have very little evidence that Gaddafi, as brutal as he is, was about to carry out a massacre of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians, as opposed to armed opponents. That is important: while innocents would doubtlessly get killed, this was probably war, not murder.
In the event, we were not standing idly in any sense. As the conflict in Libya escalated, we are weighed down with serious commitments: we are still trying to rebuild Afghanistan and birth a strong, legitimate state there while containing militant Islamists in the region; we are still dealing with an economic and fiscal crisis and the prospect of bankrupt economies in Ireland, Portugal, and possibly Spain; our own defence forces and our capabilities have been seriously reduced (on the basis of an assumption of conflict avoidance); and we are still recovering from the distress of the Iraq war.
So far, our air campaign, combining maximum liberal rhetoric about human rights with limited liability, has had the following results:
NATO leaders acknowledged the limits of their air power, which has caused rather than broken a military stalemate, and analysts predicted a long-drawn out conflict that could end in the partition of the North African oil producer.
In other words, there is little evidence of a looming massacre; we were seriously burdened with commitments both to ourselves and others; and our intervention has not so far proven to be the stepping stone to regime change, but what could be a grinding stalemate, a prolonged conflict with all the human suffering, refugee flight and displacement that will generate, a partitioned country and a growing diplomatic commitment that it will be hard to renounce given our strident liberal rhetoric. And, just in case anyone forgot, we have thrown away an ally in the war on terror who voluntarily disarmed off the board, adding to the incentive to onlooking states to protect themselves from us, unreliable and fickle allies, and adding to the incentive for other armed groups to escalate wars in order to internationalise their conflicts and bring us in.
Not a good day’s work so far.
It may well be that the status quo in the Arab-Islamic world cannot go on. It may be that we must change our relationship with it, especially through a new energy strategy. It may be that we have helped to create the problem by sponsoring client states. And its certainly the case that we have historical and humanitarian obligations to offer help wisely.
But we are not obliged to do what we cannot responsibly do. Ill-conceived vigilantism in the civil wars of other states -in the hope that we can do it on the cheap, and in the vain hope that the enemy whose stakes in the conflict are existential will not be determined enough to hold on – is not the cure. The threshold for war must always be high, much higher than in this case. To commit the ultimate political act requires compelling evidence, compelling interests, serious commitment and a keen appreciation for the dilemmas involved.
I hope that these disappointing aspects of the war are being absorbed by liberal hawks. But judging from other disasters such as Kosovo and Iraq, some of the more doctrinaire interventionists will probably interpret this as a failure of execution, technique and method. Interventionism isn’t the problem, they might decide. It is about better planning, better coalition building, more use of soft power, a more credible threat of ground forces.
For the OSB, however, the lesson is more stark. Interventionism is generally unwise. Its time we formed a presumption against it.