There’s nothing good about the war in Libya

An international relations expert says there’s no going back to the so-called ‘good interventions’ of the 1990s.

David Chandler

Topics World

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Libya has rapidly become a new cause célèbre in the humanitarian canon, following US President Barack Obama’s declaration that US-led military intervention was necessary to prevent a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ and his comparison of the NATO bombing campaign with previous ‘good wars’ of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s.

For many, this appeared to be a chance to erase the memories of the ‘bad wars’ of Afghanistan and Iraq and instead revive the moral high ground of the humanitarian intervention advocates’ favourite military interventions: those in Bosnia and Kosovo, tiny states in the Balkans, which were bombed into peace and reconciliation and then international occupation in the mid- and late-1990s.

There are, of course, some superficial similarities to the interventions in the Balkans – particularly the superior air power and military strength, meaning that NATO can fight moral wars that are not real ‘wars’ due to the fact that the interveners face little risk to their own lives. However, the peculiar thing about the discussion of military intervention in Libya is just how far removed it is from the context of the 1990s when humanitarian intervention had a powerful moral dynamism.

In the 1990s, the debate around humanitarian intervention was over its ethics and its legality. This was owing to the fact that, then, international law was still based on assumptions of the rights of sovereignty and non-intervention. Those advocating intervention, and with it, a new global, cosmopolitan world order were also arguing against a notion of the ‘impunity’ of sovereign state interests.

Today, however, there is much less at stake regarding humanitarian intervention. There are few ‘principled’ critics flagging up what is at stake in the denial of Libyan sovereignty, even in the context of a popular struggle to overthrow a dictatorial regime. Similarly, few commentators presume that the bombing of Libya is a prelude to a new, more moral, global order.

Instead, the debate over the bombing of Libya is a pragmatic, depoliticised and technical one. The critics, basing their views on the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, wish to warn of the potential instability that might result from an external intervention causing Gaddafi’s overthrow. The supporters of military intervention suggest that their actions will facilitate a ‘humanitarian’ political settlement (if not regime change) without the instability and bloodshed which would be occasioned by Gaddafi’s desire to cling on to power at all costs. Despite the columns of newsprint, there is very little at stake politically or conceptually in this utilitarian debate over military intervention.

It is interesting to ask why precisely there is so little at stake in the arguments over the intervention in Libya? After all, the debates over humanitarian intervention in the 1990s were key to shaping the discipline of international relations. So why are the debates now almost solely technical? Is this because the advocates of humanitarian intervention were right in envisaging a moral world beyond the contested realm of the international? Have the debates over a new ethical cosmopolitan world order been won without us fully realising or appreciating this shift? Considering the acceptance on all sides that Libya is an exception and that similar interventions – from the Ivory Coast to Bahrain – may be much less politically feasible, it seems not.

The bombing of Libya can be called a humanitarian intervention, and it certainly seems that there is little geo-strategic or ‘national interest’ rationale to the bombing in any case. However, the most notable aspect of the terms of the debate over Libya is that they highlight how the meaning of ‘humanitarian intervention’ has been hollowed out. In the 1990s, humanitarian intervention was meaningful as a way of ethically grounding a political and legal exception to an international world order based on the reciprocal relations of sovereignty and non-intervention. That is, intervention was meaningful only insofar as it was opposed to sovereignty. Today we no longer have a conceptually meaningful understanding either of intervention or of sovereignty.

We can never return to the 1990s world of humanitarian intervention. This isn’t because of the ‘bad wars’ of the war on terror. Rather, well before 9/11, the retreat from the conceptual conflict between intervention and sovereignty had already begun with the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty establishing the conception of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in the year 2000. In this, the commission suggested that the ‘clash of rights’ – those of intervention and of sovereignty – had been a product of misunderstanding.

The R2P concept showed that the interventionist claims of the 1990s were too burdensome for Western powers. In the decade that followed, they needed to roll back from 1990s-style interventionism and refrain from claiming global responsibility for dealing with the problems of the post–colonial world. Under R2P, they would no longer assume responsibility for securing, developing and democratising the non-Western world.

The conceptual development of the R2P enabled a ‘Third Way’ approach to international regulation, between non-intervention (and the respect for state sovereignty) and international intervention (and the assumption of international sovereign responsibility). Instead, the line between external intervention and domestic sovereignty was blurred through the focus on the ethical (rather than legal) responsibility to protect, which denied any clash between the legal and political rights of intervention and sovereignty.

Proof of this third-way approach was the rise and rise of international statebuilding. That is, international intervention was now seen as necessary to build or to construct sovereign capacities. In a world in which intervention was now premised on the need to build sovereignty – to state-build – intervention and sovereignty had become synonyms rather than antonyms.

In today’s world, the bombing of Libya cannot readily be grasped in the traditional terms of the state interests of Realpolitik or of an emerging global cosmopolitanism of human security. It now seems clear that the 1990s were the highpoint of the discipline of international relations, with the political stakes of humanitarian intervention understood as posing the choice between two liberal worlds: the political and legal ordering either of the international or the global. In 2011, the debate over the ‘humanitarian’ bombing of Libya demonstrates that we have moved beyond the liberal political binaries of the international and the global.

This is humanitarian intervention but without the political or legal framework of meaning of the 1990s. The claim of the interveners does not derive from any global ethical assumption of duty or right (in fact, the bombing campaign has the state-based international legal sanction of the UN Security Council). More importantly, the Libya campaign does not present the ‘humanitarian’ bombing as an undermining or rolling back of state sovereignty. Instead it is posed in the post-humanitarian language of capacity-building and good governance, allegedly strengthening the Libyan state through enabling the forces of democracy (anyway, those supporting the disparate opposition forces) to strengthen their influence.

The ‘good wars’ of humanitarian intervention versus state sovereignty of the 1990s ended in the international protectorates, still ongoing in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO action in Libya may involve dropping ‘humanitarian’ bombs but, unlike in Kosovo or Bosnia, there will be no assumption of Western responsibility for their outcome. In this respect, the bombing campaign much more resembles those of Afghanistan and Iraq, where there was similarly little strategic concern with what happened afterwards. While there is no chance of Libya becoming a Kosovo-style ‘good war’, there is every possibility that international powers will be drawn into the sort of mess that was created by the ‘bad wars’ of Afghanistan and Iraq.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the University of Westminster, London. He is the editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding and has written widely in this area. His personal website is can be found at:

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Topics World


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