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Setting Bad Precedents

Libya is part of this bigger strategic picture. People have warned that applying the “responsibility to protect” in cases where autocracies massacre their own citizens could set a precedent. But that is precisely the point – it should set a precedent. ~Shadi Hamid

Of course, Kosovo should have already set this precedent. Gaddafi seems not to have noticed. It seems unlikely that abusive, repressive governments will conclude from the new Libya precedent that they risk provoking military intervention if they crack down brutally on protesters and rebels. They will wager correctly that Serbia and Libya became targets of intervention not because their actions were especially heinous, but because their leaders were easily vilified and diplomatically isolated. Authoritarian rulers will make a point of cultivating major and rising power patrons to protect themselves against future intervention. The Burmese junta is secure against outside intervention because it has cultivated relationships with China and India. The “responsibility to protect” largely carried out by Western governments will give authoritarian governments new incentives to build stronger ties with those governments that are uninterested in enforcing this norm.

The precedent that it will set is that humanitarian intervention is not only permitted but demanded by fairly low-intensity civil wars, which is what we have been watching unfold in Libya for the last month. By watering down what one considers a humanitarian crisis, the concept is devalued, and it may lead to policies that are ill-suited to the situation. David Bosco described the dangers of this very well earlier this month:

The danger of thinking of the crisis almost exclusively in humanitarian terms is two-fold. First, this perspective could generate pressure for outside action that is ill-conveived and unsustainable. As the international experience in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 demonstrated, intervening to avert humanitarian crisis–but without a clear political or military goal–can be disastrous. Perversely, military action designed around humanitarian need can be less effective in addressing those needs than intervention designed to achieve a decisive military victory. More broadly, a profligate use of the term “humanitarian crisis” may devalue the concept, making it hard for the public to distinguish between a situation in which hundreds of thousands are at risk and less grave, but still serious, episodes.

One of the reasons why opponents of a Libyan war mention the other humanitarian crises around the world that have not triggered intervention is that many of them are far better candidates for international action on the terms of the “responsibility to protect.” There is as much, or as little, international consensus on what to do in Ivory Coast as there is on Libya, as ECOWAS and the AU endorse Ouattara as the legitimate president. The humanitarian crisis is already much greater in terms of the number of refugees, and Ivory Coast’s neighbors are in much greater danger of destabilization on account of their own recent civil wars. There is no agreement on action here because no major powers have chosen to make it a priority. That doesn’t mean that there is an obvious U.S. role in Ivory Coast, either, but if what we’re talking about is intervening where outside governments can be most effective in preventing humanitarian catastrophe Ivory Coast makes a lot more sense than Libya. Ivory Coast is no more and no less strategically important in enforcing certain political norms than Libya is. Forcing Gbagbo to honor the results of a free and fair democratic election could be very constructive not only for Ivorian politics but for the practice of democratic politics throughout Africa. I should also add that neither conflict meets the standards that R2P advocates have previously set up to determine when international intervention is appropriate and necessary.

To their credit, advocates of R2P did not originally set low standards for what would qualify a crisis for outside intervention. A Libyan intervention in the name of the “responsibility to protect” badly debases the standards that are supposed to apply. As in Kosovo, there has been an assumption that escalating the conflict will avert large-scale loss of human life, but it seems more likely to intensify the conflict and contribute to the loss of life and massive displacement of population that interventionists intend to prevent. Another problem with an R2P-justified intervention in Libya is that the governments will be hiding behind the R2P arguments, but they will actually be pursuing a policy of regime change, which they have hardly kept a secret. This is directly in conflict with one of the basic R2P principles, which insists on “[a]cceptance of limitations, incrementalism and gradualism in the application of force, the objective being protection of a population, not defeat of a state.”

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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