Intervention Without Responsibility
22 November 2011
Many argue that the combination of UN legitimacy, Western airpower and indigenous resistance forces is a powerful recipe for taking down dictators. Certainly such an approach avoids the pitfalls of a Western role on the ground, so evident in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006, the UN Security Council affirmed its support for the doctrine of "responsibility to protect". This is the idea that if a member state cannot protect its own citizens from crimes against humanity, it is the responsibility of the international community to do so.
"R2P", as this doctrine is known, would have been a wonderful justification for intervention and liberal imperialism if only the UN were an effective organisation.
Due to Western disinterest in supplying troops for peacekeeping operations, the application of R2P has been typically selective. The primary targets have been weak African states.
However, Libya and the current romance with airpower have breathed new life into ideas like R2P. They have reignited also the neo-conservative belief that democracy can be exported by military means.
Airpower offers the illusion that a "clean" war can be fought. Only the "bad guys" are hit by precision guided munitions. The complexities and moral ambiguities of intervention on the ground are seemingly avoided.
To be sure, contemporary airpower, especially in the hands of the experienced professionals in the USAF and the RAF, is extraordinarily precise. Whatever else one can say about Libya, very few civilian casualties were caused by Western air action.
Airpower, however, remains subject to the vicissitudes of war and the diabolical dilemmas of armed intervention. Its use - and withdrawal - may yet contribute to a protracted civil conflict in Libya.
There are other reasons to doubt Libya will be a model for the future in the way advocates of philanthropic violence hope. (…)
But in practice UNSC 1973 was tantamount to authorisation for regime change. Certainly this is how the US, the UK and France interpreted it.
Future no-fly zone resolutions will face far greater scepticism. The legitimacy of a Security Council resolution - a crucial piece of the Libya model - may well be unavailable. (…)
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