Sunday, 13 March 2011

Humanitarian intervention redux: lessons for Libya from the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq

Humanitarian intervention is fashionable again. Well, not quite. But as events unfold in Libya, the number of commentators suddenly spilling ink over a concept widely presumed buried alongside the dead of Iraq has led many a po-faced columnist and Question Time audience member to ask indignantly: “have we learnt nothing from the last ten years?”

It's something of an unfair line of attack. Throughout the 90s, the idea that states could intervene in situations of “extreme humanitarian emergency” slowly, painstakingly gained legitimacy – though not before thousands had been allowed to die in Rwanda and Bosnia. The culmination of this was NATO's imperfect but timely intervention in Kosovo to stop the slaughter of ethic Albanians at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic's thugs. For many of us the Kosovo war – and later Sierre Leone - shows that intervention genuinely driven by humanitarian objectives is possible in international relations. But by using humanitarian language as a drape for the illegal and illegitimate catastrophe in Iraq - which failed almost every pre-condition for humanitarian intervention ever set out - Blair appeared to have killed dead a doctrine he'd done so much to forge.

Yet strangely much of the debate over no-fly zones in Libya is playing out in an eerily similar way to the coverage and literature surrounding the Kosovo war. Many have asked whether we've entered a strange political time warp. But though it may theoretically be legitimate - as well as altogether more comfortable - for those of us not in principle against humanitarian intervention to dis-entangle Libya from Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be a terrible mistake. It would allow the opposition to claim the last decade for themselves and if replicated by officials lead to significant errors in approach and execution.

Instead we should take from past military successes, learn from past catastrophes and build this in to the really specific set of circumstances before us. While the facts are still being considered in Libya, as Michael Walzer says we should start thinking about what happens if Gaddafi regains control, particularly over Benghazi – as it looks like he will. What if he starts taking revenge on those who have defied him? What if once again we see the systematic extermination of a select portion of the population? If 'humanitarian intervention' in Libya goes ahead, in whatever form, it will be a decisive historical moment for the concept – a chance for resurrection that if squandered or botched would probably prove fatal.

With all this in mind, here's five pieces of advice to be drawn from the recent history of military interventions which should be considered by those advancing the case for a no-fly zone (or more) in Libya.

1. The UN route is vital

Trendy as it is to disparage the UN as useless or dysfunctional, the US brand of unilateralism over Iraq showed that bypassing it nevertheless has massive implications for perceptions of legitimacy. In a region where there is already great (and justified) suspicion of the West, any action in Libya that hasn't received wide international support would be catastrophic. Any half-successful humanitarian intervention in history has been multilateral.

A UN Resolution backing a no-fly zone would obviously be preferable. But it's easy to forget that under a strict interpretation of the UN Charter, the Kosovo war was illegal (the UK and US failed to get a UN Resolution justifying military action owing to the cynical threat of veto from Russia). But crucially, among most scholars of international law the Kosovo war is still judged legitimate, or at least 'not illegal'. This is because of the support the intervention gained from states from a wide variety of regions – a Russian proposed resolution opposing the intervention was roundly defeated by 12-3 – and because a legal norm allowing for intervention in cases of genocide or mass extermination had evolved throughout the 1990s.

The lesson from this experience for Libya is that any attempts to install a no-fly zone must not under any circumstance jettison the UN or international community, even in the event that the threat of veto makes an enabling Resolution impossible. There is a half-way house that is preferable to blind unilateralism. Leading NATO countries should propose a resolution, even if it's rejected, to establish that it is just China and Russia that oppose; they should secure the vocal support of the Arab League, the African Union, explore the possibility of a 'Uniting for Peace' resolution from the General Assembly – draw as many states as possible into the cause, while smoking out the extent of the opposition and their justifying arguments. Ten years ago the idea that sovereignty was sacrosanct had declined significantly, few states felt politically able to use the language of sovereignty regarding states who had turned on their citizens. It'll be interesting to see if and how Iraq and Afghanistan have changed that.

2. The hard left will go berserk, probably best to ignore them.

'Humanitarian' intervention is an anathema to the vast majority of the hard left. Most believe no such thing is possible, given that the structure of international relations/capitalism (take your pick) determines all state behaviour in favour of imperialism, with morality at all times just providing a guise for advancing material interests (i.e, oil). Many of them will pivot their opinion to make sure it maintains the maximum distance from the US in particular, even if this leaves them taking up some quite ludicrous positions. In the Balkans in the 1990s a shameful number (including Chomsky) indulged in the late 20
th century equivalent of Holocaust denial. They claimed among other things that the Srebrenica and Racak massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo respectively were invented or exaggerated by the West to justify intervention, that hey! these things happen in wars anyway and Milosevic was just a big cuddly bear*. Fittingly, Diane Johnstone (whose work on Kosovo was among the worst examples of such filth) has recently penned an article making
many of the same accusations about Libya. Expect more of this. More intellectual acrobatics and more revisionism. If Gaddafi escalates the massacre of his own people as he reasserts control, the question that has to be levelled back at John Pilger and the like is this: do you think the international community should just sit by? If so, fine, but face up to it. The West is anything but perfect, but sitting on the sidelines and opining about the structural iniquities in global power isn't much comfort to those being slaughtered.

3. All or nothing thinking is useless

“Well if we intervene in Libya, why not Zimbabwe or North Korea?” may sound like a clever line but it isn't - and it shouldn't be pandered to by those in favour of intervening. The reputation of humanitarian intervention in the 90s and R2P beyond that suffered from the at times almost messianic tone of its supporters - talk of a “new world order” and so on. 'No-fly zones' and the like are imperfect, practical, piecemeal interventions that should be considered on a case by case basis and weighed against wider repercussions (in the case of North Korea, nuclear war!). They do not herald a new era of world government where all is harmonious, universal and consistent. Intervention will always be a political art. It will always be messy and selective, based around old colonial ties, geographical proximity or public affinity with one group of people in light of specific events filtered through the usual partial media lens' – accept it. It doesn't make humanitarian intervention a worthless concept, but it will always be shaped by the subjectivities of the most powerful states and their publics. The question must therefore always be: what are the motivations of the states involved? Do geopolitics outway genuine humanitarian concern?

It's worth adding that by genuine humanitarian concern, of course, William Hague is not and should not be expected to be a paragon of selflessless and virtue. International relations is a cynical business, afterall. But history (especially of the Balkans) shows domestic pressure and the political anxiety – in the age of wall to wall 24 hour media – of being seen to have innocent people slaughtered on 'your watch' can spur genuine humanitarian action divorced from covert grabs for land or oil, or any of the other old 'realist' explanations of state action. Again, this will have to do. It's evidence of overwhelming ulterior motive we should be looking for, not altruism.

4. Can we do good? What are the limits of our power?

Rory Stewart's book
Occupational Hazards is among the best of all the literature dedicated to post-mortem of the disastrous Iraq war. His day-to-day account of life as
Deputy Governorate Co-Ordinator of Maysan province in the initial years after the invasion carries one important theme: that the US and the UK were intervening in a highly complex political eco-system that they did not understand and were not welcome in. No amount of reading T.E Lawrence, flexible military tactics “or giving lollipops to children” would ever change that fundamental weakness, he says. NATO has the same struggle in Afghanistan. Even in more welcoming circumstance in Kosovo, NATO were left red-faced by the slightly 'off message' (to say the least) actions of the Kosovo Liberation Army they had intervened to support (revenge attacks on Serbs, general crime and corruption).

The point we should take from all this is one of humility. Do the UK, US and France in particular understand the complex web of tribes, allegiances and agendas in which they are embroiling themselves in Libya? Do they have an idea how their intervention will change that dynamic? Do they understand 'the rebels' they are supporting, or even Libyan civil society (in so far as it exists)? Are we 100% sure of the facts on the ground?

Neither should we assume that a no-fly zone will be effective - the initial raids on Serbia were not. What if Gaddfi, as the Serbs did, actually escalate ground violence against civilians and rebel forces? Are the US and UK willing to start an air-campaign 'down town'? If so, innocent civilians will almost certainly get caught in the cross-fire and die. These are all things that should weigh heavily on the minds of advocates of intervention. Humanitarian intervention is war, war isn't glorious. We cannot bomb our way to utopia, we can only aim for the least worst – and bloody – outcome.

All of which, paradoxically, brings us to...

No more 'virtual war'

Interventions in the 1990s were severely restricted by, in the words of Michael Ignatieff, the tendency to “talk the language of ultimate cause while practising the art of minimum risk”. If we are going to intervene, it has got to be done properly and it has got to represent a lasting mulitlateral commitment. The bombs dropped on Belgrade in 1999 during the initial NATO campaign were done so from such a ludicrous height, in order to minimise the risk to the pilots, that they proved completely counter intuitive. By virtue of the task at hand, intervening forces will have to be put at risk for anything they do to be effective. Again, something that should at all times be considered by pro-interventionists.
There is also a lesson for Cameron among all this. Media and public opinion is fickle. The groundswell of US media pressure and public support for intervention in Somalia in the 1990s soon went sour once US lives started to be lost – the 'CNN effect' turned into the 'body bag effect'. He may be enjoying the role of an international leader, but things will get difficult and because he will have tied his reputation to the outcome, pressure will mount to almost unbearable levels (Alastair Campbell says the Kosovo campaign was the most testing moment of New Labour's first term – at one point Blair's entourage were even convinced it would break the government). Any intervention cannot be a half hearted affair, and the moment the first allied plane takes off, Cameron has got to see it through no matter the political damage back home. The coalition of political support behind any intervention in Libya will likely be fragile and Gaddafi will feed off any weakness, as Milosevic did - any vacillations could prove disastrous.

*For anyone interested in a proper debunking of revisionist rubbish over Kosovo and a discussion of its implications, here are two useful links: