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Unexpected Demonstration Effects

The Libya intervention is also complicated by the trends in the rest of the region. There is currently a bloody crackdown going on in U.S.-backed Bahrain, with the support of Saudi Arabia and the GCC. The Yemeni regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is currently carrying out some of its bloodiest repression yet. Will the Responsibility to Protect extend to Bahrain and Yemen? This is not a tangential point. One of the strongest reasons to intervene in Libya is the argument that the course of events there will influence the decisions of other despots about the use of force [bold mine-DL]. If they realize that the international community will not allow the brutalization of their own people, and a robust new norm created, then intervention in Libya will pay off far beyond its borders. But will ignoring Bahrain and Yemen strangle that new norm in its crib? ~Marc Lynch

Lynch indirectly confirms my view that there aren’t very good arguments for any outside force to intervene in Libya. If one of the strongest arguments for intervening in Libya is that it will affect how other governments act, shouldn’t the focus of international attention be on those other governments and their ongoing crackdowns? If we want to discourage crackdowns in Gulf states and Yemen, presumably there is a more efficient way of doing it than attacking Gaddafi’s forces. If intervening in Libya is supposed to create a deterrent against brutal crackdowns by authoritarian governments, doesn’t this deterrent lack credibility when many of the governments calling for intervention in Libya are currently engaged in crackdowns as well?

If intervention in Libya is distracting the U.S. and other states from what is happening in Bahrain and Yemen, surely that is an argument against Libyan intervention. It’s not as if the UAE and Qatar are urging action in Libya because they are trying to deter Bahrain from attacking protesters in Manama. The UAE and Qatar have endorsed Bahrain’s repressive tactics, and then backed them up with soldiers. Doesn’t all of this show the “Libyan war is necessary to create anti-authoritarian demonstration effect” argument to be completely hollow? After all, intervention in Libya doesn’t show that “the international community will not allow the brutalization of their own people,” but that only in fairly rare cases of universally reviled leaders will there ever be enough of a consensus to authorize action against a repressive government. Instead of strengthening a new norm, Libyan intervention will confirm that the enforcement of the “responsibility to protect” usually occurs only in those exceptional cases when a government has no reliable and powerful allies left. We already know that it won’t apply in Bahrain, and the presence of troops from the neighboring Gulf states tells us why.

I find it interesting that the demonstration effect that advocates of intervention believe a war will have is often the exact opposite of the one that the war produces. That should make us extremely wary of military action based on speculation about the positive echo effects it might have elsewhere in the world. For its advocates, the invasion of Iraq was supposed to result in the creation of a democratic Iraq that would serve as a model to the region and usher in regional transformation. Indeed, Iraq became a model of sorts, or at least a cautionary tale, and for many years the reputation of democracy promotion was and to some extent still is inextricably tied up with the chaos, violence, and destruction of the war. Instead of becoming a democratic beacon, Iraq helped to discredit democracy, at least when promoted by the U.S., as a political model. Suppose that a Libyan war sends a very different message from the one that its supporters want to send. Instead of sending a message to authoritarian governments around the world that they must not use violence against protesters, suppose that it sends the message that authoritarian rulers need to clamp down even more right now and react even more violently when protests erupt.

Imagine that you are a despotic ruler who wishes to remain in power. Up until now, you are probably already convinced that using coercive and brutal methods to suppress opposition to your rule is often effective, and you have been using some of these methods on a regular basis for years. So far you have seen significant protests in at least five Arab countries governed by authoritarians and monarchs, the rulers have stepped down in two, and so far the rulers have more or less continued to hold on in three of them.

Gaddafi appeared to be on the ropes in Libya, but made a quick comeback, but he wasn’t able to crush the rebellion against him before outside forces pledged to intervene. What do you, the despotic ruler, conclude from this? What you would probably conclude is that Gaddafi’s mistake was in being caught off guard and being slow in recovering control over the country, and not that his mistake was in triggering international intervention through brutal repression. Had Gaddafi crushed the rebellion in a week or two, there would have been no time for any outside governments to agree or to act against him, and it would have seemed pointless for them to try. As a despotic ruler, you resolve not to be as complacent and easily surprised as Gaddafi was, and you decide that when protests erupt you won’t be so disorganized and slow in your response.

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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