I am in a place you cannot reach,” Muammar Gaddafi taunted in a May 13 radio address to his NATO adversaries. On October 20, 2011, NATO aircraft turned the taunt on its head, intercepting the dictator’s fleeing convoy from his Sirte hideout and opening the door for local fighters to take final vengeance. So concluded NATO’s most successful military adventure outside Europe.
The achievement naturally raises hopes the alliance has uncovered a new deminimised military strategy to protect civilians from government-sponsored mayhem. The formula is not complicated: Cruise missiles, aircraft and electronic jamming first suppress air defences of the offending regime. Air power then creates a cordon sanitaire around rebel enclaves to prevent slaughter, buying time for rebels to constitute themselves into a fighting force and form an interim government. All this takes place without NATO ground troops.
So how does the strategy stack up against recent and more distant modern wars – Kuwait 1991, Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003 and World War II? True, several involved large clashing armies in international conflict, but the comparison provides a point of departure to demonstrate the Libya model to combat governments turning on their people and how it supports Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, an emerging international doctrine to defend against future Libyas.
US and NATO intervention into Afghanistan and Kosovo demonstrate the Libya model does not entirely break new ground. Iraq 2003 marked a more expansive strategy and objective, a blitzkrieg on steroids combining air-delivered shock and awe with a mechanised armour assault to bring down the Baathist government. A mere three weeks finished the Iraqi army, only to open the can of sectarian and ethnic divisions that would commence a new, far more difficult conflict. Would Washington have been better off had it applied the Libya model?
Does Libya mark a game changer? Does it legitimise R2P? The effort to convince the international community to join together to protect citizens from their own government or non-state groups that attempt mayhem on a grand scale gained traction after Rwanda’s genocide and mass killings in Srebrenica. The Canadian government took the lead convening the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. The panel of former diplomats and international public servants authored ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ a report promoting intervention within sovereign borders when ‘large scale loss of life’ looms as a product of deliberate state action, neglect, failed state situation or large-scale ethnic cleansing. The proposal proved to be an audacious challenge to the UN Charter tenant that forbids intervention ‘in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.’
Despite the seven months it took NATO and the allies to prevail, President Barack Obama called the Libya intervention a “recipe for success.” And, indeed, the war demonstrated how a light international military footprint can empower populations to effectively resist tyrannical regimes.
Indeed there remains much in the Libya war that made international involvement uniquely possible – a particularly odious dictator, his threat to use heavy weapons against his people, popular anger against the regime swelled by the Arab Spring, the willingness of the population to take up arms, the Arab League’s support for international action, intense international media coverage and unwillingness of any permanent member of the Security Council to veto the intervention resolution. In short, Libya has too many specific conditions to serve as a general model.
But it would be an overstatement to suggest that Libya does not have broader implications. The intervention legitimised Responsibility to Protect. Notwithstanding the disunity of the Security Council on Syria, the action of the Arab League in suspending the country is a step in the right direction against a regime that has trained its tanks on citizens. No doubt the principle requires reinforcement through repeated practice, but the Libya war broke new ground, something no country violating human rights on a grand scale can dismiss cavalierly.
Bennett Ramberg, PhD, JD, served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the US Department of State during the George H.W. Bush administration
© 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation