It is a little noticed fact that the London School of Economics doctoral thesis that bears the name “Saif Al-Islam Alqadhafi” makes the case for the military intervention that resulted in his capture, current detention, and possible death sentence at the hands of what may pass in Libya for justice. Perhaps in his pre-trial captivity, Dr Gaddafi will have a chance to reflect upon the words he once supposedly wrote.
“The international order,” says this thesis, “has a responsibility to protect the basic rights of those citizens who live under non-liberal governments” (such as, the reader cannot resist adding, his dad’s). An academic panel – not to be confused with the inquiry by Lord Woolf, whose very critical report on the LSE’s links with Libya was published on Wednesday – has yet to pronounce on charges of plagiarism made against this thesis. But whoever wrote it, it does not stop there. In the version available online it argues for a so-called collective management system, involving representatives of civil society and business as well as governments. And “to the extent that the mechanisms of the collective management system succeed in providing a way to give voice to the citizens of illiberal states, then interventions can be at the invitation of these individuals. When the top levels of the system decide to intervene in another state’s affairs, it is therefore an action that has originated from the will of the people at the bottom-most levels.”
Translated into plain English, this surely means that when leaders of the Libyan uprising in Benghazi pointed out that Dr Gaddafi’s dad was threatening to hunt them down “alley by alley” showing “no mercy”, and they asked for outside assistance, that helped justify an air campaign called for by Nicolas Sarkozy and sanctioned by the UN. The resulting Nato air strikes reportedly cost Dr Gaddafi the use of several fingers on his right hand. They also tipped the balance in favour of anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground, leading to the killing of his father (a French jet having just shot up his convoy) and the subsequent seizure of Saif.
Extraordinary photos taken soon after Saif’s capture showed him in desert garb, his face and hair coated with sand, as if for a theatrical portrayal of death: the mask for a masque. What worlds away from the neat, western-dressed figure who had sat in front of Professor Lord Meghnad Desai to defend his LSE thesis just a few years earlier, presumably discussing such deathless themes as “the ‘3×3=3’ model as a system of multi-level governance” (section 5.7) and “Collective management and cosmopolitan multi-level citizenship” (5.8).
“Yet,” that thesis judiciously continues, “the difficulties involved in any decision to intervene across borders, and the dangers of ‘liberal imperialism’, remain, and the likelihood that military interventions could be justified, given [the] unpredictable consequences of such action, remains low.” Fair comment.
“After Libya” is a good moment to take stock of what is sometimes called liberal intervention. I’ve recently heard two contrasting views: one from a former American ambassador, the other from a serving British one. Peter Galbraith was a protagonist of US intervention in former Yugoslavia, where he served as ambassador to Croatia, but has become a fierce critic of the massive, costly incompetence and disastrous unintended consequences of US-led interventions and bungled nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, looking back over the 20 years since the end of the cold war, Galbraith sees four “modest successes”: Kuwait (the first Gulf war), Bosnia, Kosovo and now Libya. They have, he argues, some features in common. The military action was relatively brief, and much of it from the air. The interventions had broad international and regional support. The action relied upon local partners. The objectives were limited.
How can Galbraith already claim Libya as a success? Because success is defined as the achievement of that limited objective: reversing a current or seemingly imminent mass killing of civilians (Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya), or an armed occupation (Kuwait). Yes, Libya today is no Switzerland, nor is it likely to be. If things again become really horrible there – and reputable observers have already documented human rights abuses by the country’s liberators – you deal with that as it comes. “Modest success” is defined also by the modesty of the goal against which it is measured.
Sir John Jenkins, Britain’s ambassador to Libya and former ambassador to Iraq, will not settle for that. He recognises all the elements that made the Libyan action different and better than that in Iraq, emphasising particularly the support from the Arab League. But he argues that the lesson often drawn from the chequered record of these interventions over two decades – namely, that “state-building is a mug’s game” – is precisely the wrong one. The right lesson is that “state-building is what we have to get right”. So the success of the intervention can only be claimed in the longer run, if the state it affects (or creates, in the case of Kosovo) turns out to be significantly better than it had been for some time before – and not just better than in the moment of maximum humanitarian danger. What Libya, like other Arab states, needs is “legitimate, accountable, removeable government”.
There’s no doubting the seriousness of Jenkins’s concern for a region he knows very well, but Galbraith is right on the immediate point. Liberal, humanitarian interventions must be rare, exceptional responses to extreme, inhumane circumstances, and should be judged above all by their achievement in averting or reversing the disaster.
This is pretty much what the now UN-endorsed doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) says. This is elaborated in a series of UN documents and other studies – notably a pathbreaking one by a Canadian-sponsored international commission. It sets a very demanding set of conditions, starting with the presence of an extreme humanitarian crisis but including such criteria as right intention, proper authority, last resort and proportional means. There should also be a “reasonable prospect” that the suffering can be averted or halted – and the consequences of inaction are likely to be worse than those of action. I think we can already say this of Libya. If the Gaddafis had been allowed to crush the people in Benghazi, it would be worse today.
But then comes the objection often raised in America’s Iraq debate, quoting the familiar sign in an antique shop: “If you break it, you own it.” To this there are two answers. First, the west didn’t “break” Libya in the sense that it did break Iraq, in a war of choice not justified under the true principles of R2P. More fundamentally: the world is not an antique shop. Countries are not porcelain figurines to be picked up and carelessly smashed by visiting Americans.
Change the metaphor and think of it like this. You see your neighbour’s two-year-old daughter being savaged by his rottweiler. What do you do? If you are able to, you jump over the fence and beat the dog off with a stout stick, or shoot it with your gun. You may take a special interest in the little girl’s future from then on, but she doesn’t become your daughter, you don’t “own” her. No more does the west “own” Libya just because it made a limited, justified intervention there.