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Humanitarian “Rollback” in Libya

Judah Grunstein didn’t think much of Obama’s speech, but he believes it accomplished a few things:

What the speech did accomplish, however, is to reset the criteria by which that outcome will be judged. In this, Obama was making up for his initial mistake of letting the rhetoric of regime change outstrip his willingness to use force to achieve it. By distinguishing the limited military objectives from the long-term political goal, Obama successfully realigned the two arms of policy. This, then, is the post-Iraq version of Cold War containment: We’re willing to live with leaders we don’t approve of, but not with behavior we don’t approve of. We’ll use politics to address the former and multilateral military force to address the latter.

There are caveats, of course, and the part of the speech that articulated them hewed pretty closely to the “When We Can” standard I defended last week. But Obama also offered a compelling “Where We Must” corollary to respond to those who, like Daniel Larison, continue to narrowly define American interests, and those who, like Andrew Exum, worry that we can no longer afford to assume even Obama’s limited version of “bear any burden.”

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find Obama’s case for humanitarian intervention compelling at all. On the contrary, his commitment to stalemate in the speech last night obliges the U.S. to devote resources to an indefinite “containment” policy that was entirely unnecessary, and this will probably make living conditions in much of Libya much worse. This is the outcome that Exum and Hosford have described as the most dangerous outcome:

A stalemate in Libya would effectively result in a de facto partition of the country with a severely undergoverned and disorganized safe haven in eastern Libya for the rebels that could provide refuge for various militant and criminal groups capable of exporting violence and instability to other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Such a scenario would prolong U.S. and allied military intervention as only a major Western investment in developing the independent governance, economic and security force capacity of eastern Libya would be likely to forestall this outcome. However, such an investment is highly unlikely due to the overarching fiscal constraints facing the United States and NATO countries and competing priorities.

We’ve seen something like this form of “containment” before during the ’90s as it was applied to Iraq, and it was both pointless and immoral in light of the effects it had on the civilian population. If what we can expect in Libya is a repeat of that policy, the decision to intervene will have likely contributed to a much worse overall humanitarian crisis for the entire population of Libya. Benghazi may have been saved, but the Libyan people could easily end up paying more dearly over time than if outside governments had not stepped in.

That said, what we’re talking about isn’t that much like “Cold War containment.” It’s a much more aggressive, intrusive policy than that. Cold War containment normally implied that the government being contained was largely free to do what it wants to do inside its borders, so long as its domestic activities didn’t relate to threats against other nations. Soviet crackdowns were awful, but as long as they happened in one of Moscow’s satellites the U.S. wasn’t going to take military action. So what we’re talking about here isn’t containment, but a sort of updated, limited form of rollback doctrine expressed in terms of the “responsibility to protect” that stops short of regime change.

The entire purpose of intervention in Libya is to dictate to Gaddafi what he can and cannot do inside Libya’s borders. Libya posed no serious threat to any other state when it was attacked, so it is hard to see how “containment” of Libya will be anything other than an ongoing, indefinite violation of Libyan sovereignty. Unlike Iraq in the ’90s, there was no recent act of international aggression preceding this ongoing violation of Libyan sovereignty, so it will be interesting to see how long the other major and rising powers in the world go along with this “containment.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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