A Handful of Thoughts on Libya

I don’t have the stamina of Daniel Larison and hence have not kept nearly so up to date on our ongoing intervention in North Africa. But a few very quick thoughts apropos of what we’ve seen so far:

1. Would a united Europe have intervened? If so, would we have been called upon to help?

It seems pretty clear to me that the strongest impetus for intervention in Libya came from France, and secondarily from Britain. I take a rather low-brow view of Sarkozy’s motives but really that’s neither here nor there. But I am curious: what would have happened if Europe had a real executive branch, and hence a unified foreign and defense policy?

The way things work right now, it seems to me, is that Europe follows the lead of whichever major member government has the strongest views, but then doesn’t have the ability to follow through on its own commitments. This is what happened in the 1990s with the breakup of Yugoslavia when Germany precipitately recognized Croatian and Slovenian independence. The Serb-dominated portion of Croatia reacted by seceding from Croatia, and the Yugoslav army came in to help them do so, igniting the first Balkan war. Then Bosnia, not wanting to be trapped in a rump, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, seceded, their Serbs seceded from Bosnia, and again the Yugoslav army intervened, igniting the second Balkan war. But Europe, though it created a diplomatic context where outside intervention was necessary (Yugoslavia was now intervening in the internal disputes of sovereign Croatia and Bosnia) did not have the independent capacity to impose a solution, and eventually the Americans were dragged in.

Libya seems to be following a similar script, but with France rather than Germany taking the lead. France was reluctant to get involved in the Balkans, but seconded German recognition of Croatia for the sake of European unity. Germany is reluctant to get involved in North Africa, but wasn’t going to make trouble for France (and Britain) if they wanted to intervene. But France and Britain can’t actually manage this mission on their own, it seems, so America is involved.

Regardless of the merits of the intervention, it does seem to me that Libya is a perfect example of an adventure that should not require American participation. The fact that we are involved proves that our European allies are either weaker than we should want them to be, or less united behind the decision to intervene than we should want them to be. Either way, the solution is, contrary to historic American policy preferences, ever-deeper rather than ever-wider union – and, in particular, a genuine common European foreign and defense policy.

2. The lack of an international monopoly of force does not mean international law is meaningless; it means it functions like medieval Icelandic law.

There has been much ink spilled over the question of whether Libya is a good test case, a bad test case, or a disastrously bad test case of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. But all of this presumes that “responsibility to protect” is a sensible way of describing said doctrine. Which, of course, is not the case. There can be no legal obligation to intervene because there is no political entity upon which to impose such an obligation. The United Nations cannot, on its own authority, launch a war. It has no divisions. Meanwhile, it would be very peculiar indeed to say that the government of the United States was legally obligated to intervene everywhere in the world, but that the government of Russia was not similarly obligated – why should the United States get this special status?

Therefore, the right way to think about this doctrine is not as a responsibility to protect but a right to protect. That is to say: some international body has the authority to declare that a situation exists in such and such country constituting an imminent threat of mass murder or even genocide. That would amount to a declaration of outlawry against the country in question. An outlaw is not somebody in police custody – the medieval Icelanders didn’t have a central government with an executive function; there was no police custody. But an outlaw lost the benefit of the customary law’s protections. He could be attacked with impunity by any member of the community.

That’s basically the situation in Libya. All this talk about “why aren’t we intervening in the Ivory Coast” has the easiest answer imaginable: we don’t want to, and nobody can compel us to – and nothing about the idea of a “responsibility to protect” can change the latter condition. Similarly, hand-wringing about the fact that our actions exceed the mandate of the United Nations can be answered simply: the United Nations is not capable of managing our intervention in Libya and, if it tried to do so, it could not compel us or our allies to cease our operations.

We should recognize what the United Nations is and is not capable of doing. The Security Council is, in some ways, analogous to the medieval Althing, in that it is a community of sovereign powers (nations, free Icelandic families) rather than a sovereign power itself. It has the recognized authority to rule on the propriety or impropriety of actions by members of the community. Having no power to enforce its own decrees, however, all it can do is declare a member of the community that refuses to abide by said decrees to be an outlaw, and therefore subject to the employment of force by any member of the community that chooses to do so without that member then in turn being subject to censure by the community.

One might still conclude that the idea of declaring a country an outlaw because of a possible imminent mass murder is a bad one. Or that there was no impending catastrophe in Libya. But regardless, it will always be the case that the United States will only act when, for whatever reason, it wants to, and not because it is compelled to do so by the United Nations, and therefore “responsibility to protect” can only mean “give the United States (or another power) the right to intervene in conflicts that it wants to get involved in for whatever reason, but only if there is a credible threat of mass-murder to justify said intervention.”

3. We should stop thinking about war as a signaling device.

The United States is currently at war with Libya, which was repressing a popular rebellion, and has long been an adversary but was recently rehabilitated. We are not at war with Syria, which is repressing a popular rebellion, and has long been an adversary but was in the process of being rehabilitated. We are not at war with Yemen, which is repressing popular protest, and has never been much of an adversary or an ally, really. We are not at war with Bahrain, which is repressing popular protest, and is a key ally (and a friend of other key allies who are helping repress said protest). We did not come to the aid of key allies in Tunisia and Egypt when they became the targets of popular protest, but worked quietly with elements within those regimes to ease the targets out of power without violence.

Is there a pattern here? It’s obscure, isn’t it? Almost as if we reacted to each situation based on the specific facts of the case, rather than imposing a single doctrine on all cases.

If that’s true, then what is the “lesson” that other regimes will take from the Libyan adventure? North Korea seems to have taken the lesson from our Libyan adventure that the only thing to do is to rely on oneself and an independent nuclear deterrent. But this is the lesson they would draw from any action – this has been their policy since the origin of the North Korean regime. No doubt the dictators in Myanmar have similar thoughts. But Syria’s escape from Western bombs points to a different lesson: don’t become a weird pariah state without any real regional allies, because then you are a sitting duck. North Korea (and Myanmar) might just as well conclude not that “nobody will protect us so we need to rely exclusively on ourselves” but “we’d better keep the Chinese happy, because that alliance is our best guarantee of survival, not rapprochement with the West.” But is that a bad lesson? I don’t know – that really depends on whether we think China could be a productive partner or not in dealing with these situations. In my view, it might be a good lesson – if China was going to be unproductive, there was very little we were going to accomplish anyway.

It strikes me as exceptionally unproductive to base our foreign policy on the idea that we can fool other countries into thinking we’re going to do something we aren’t going to do, or that we’re not going to do something that we are. And one thing we are not going to do is be strictly rule-bound in our approach to foreign affairs. The United States is a huge country with a very large and conflicting array of interests and, being both a democracy and a country with a divided central government, limited ability to set policy at the government’s discretion. To most countries, we will inevitably be a relatively fickle friend. When the rulers of Uzbekistan ask themselves “can we rely on the United States?” the answer is inevitably going to be “to an extent – but not really” – and not only is there nothing the United States can do to change that impression, it’s not clear to me that we should want to change that impression, because that is the truth, and I don’t see what is gained by trying to convince the Uzbeks that we are more trustworthy than we really are. Does that mean that Uzbekistan would be wise to seek Chinese or Russian sponsorship instead? That depends on what each side wants from the other, as well as on what America actually wants from Uzbekistan. (If the Uzbek regime primarily wanted protection from American interference, would Russia actually provide that, given their own limited ability to project power and their knowledge of America’s deep involvement in Afghanistan?)

Point being: if the Libyan intervention is to be justified at all, it should be justified on the basis of what we are doing in Libya, and not some larger doctrine that it supposedly represents. Was this action worth the costs here – not is this action an important precedent that will establish a norm of blah blah blah blah blah.

The most important signal sent by this intervention is that the United States remains willing and able to engage in operations of this sort, even after Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether that, in turn, is a good thing or not depends greatly on whether you think we’re actually able to sustain this pace of operations (I don’t) and how the rest of the world is likely to react to them. What is most striking to me in regard to the latter is that the great mass of global skeptics of this kind of behavior – countries like India, Turkey, Brazil – did not convert to an opposition coalition in this instance; American power remains sufficiently preponderant that the balancing coalition you’d expect to arise to restrain that power basically doesn’t exist. The risk is that this lack of effective opposition will delude us into thinking that it implies something about the durability of our relative position, which it does not. One day, our relative position will have declined sufficiently that meaningful balancing behavior will begin to manifest itself. At that point, if we haven’t prepared for how we’ll operate in a more multi-polar world, we’ll find our position deteriorating with remarkable rapidity.