By Yale Weiss
Aug. 23 was for many (though not all) Libyans a triumphant day. It was the day that the Libyan rebel forces crashed through the gate of Muammar Gadhafi’s Tripoli residential and military fortress, symbolically ending the regime, though the despot himself remained at large. The victory was celebrated with raucous gunfire, inspection of the mercurial leader’s possessions and an iconic photo-op atop the monument of a golden fist crushing a U.S. plane. That monument commemorates an event that happened in 1986 when Reagan ordered a strike with the intention of killing Gadhafi following a disco bombing in Berlin. There is, then, a certain irony that Gadhafi’s people celebrate his toppling on a monument against their former enemy, now indispensable ally.
The point of this article is not to revere an incoherent dictator nor is it to praise the actions of a group of ‘freedom fighters,’ which are, incidentally, a loose conglomeration of groups, only a proper subset of which actually advocate for a Western-style democracy. Rather, the point that needs highlighting and the point generally ignored by most of the countries who participated in the no-fly zone (which is what really defeated Gadhafi, needless to say) is the question of national sovereignty.
Let us phrase the problem thus: What right, if any, does a country have to violate the sovereignty of another country if that country is not aggressing against it? This last part is fair, as I think most people would agree that war is justified if one is being attacked or threatened.
The most common way to answer this question is simply to appeal to the significance of the moment: that is, had the no-fly zone not been enacted, Gadhafi would’ve killed “hundreds of thousands of people” in Benghazi. First, if potential mass-slaughter is a sufficient condition for intervention, one would’ve expected it in Syria considering the pledge to “cleanse Hama,” or in Bahrain considering that country’s own reliance on foreign mercenaries of sorts (in this case, the Saudi army) to put down rioters. No military action was taken against either, hence the inconsistency of the justification.
However, the last “response” can be generalized though, and in this, the full absurdity is made clear: Gadhafi’s government was carrying out violence against people trying to overthrow the government, thus the need to protect the revolutionaries. Well, what did Britain do when the Irish tried to throw off the British government (incidentally, Gadhafi supported the IRA; how things come full circle!)? What did the USA do when the CSA decided it had had enough of the particular government? “But,” it is argued, “these were not all of the people in the country, unlike in Libya where everyone wanted to get rid of the dictator.” Well, as it may surprise some people, clearly not everyone in Libya wanted to get rid of Gadhafi either, hence the civil war. Even if the majority were opposed to Gadhafi, we must concede that the majority of Shiite Bahrain probably doesn’t want its Sunni government, and still, no action was taken there.
The point that I believe to be a legitimate question is, if anti-federal government revolutionaries were to try to breach the White House to get rid of the president, are we to expect that the military will not react with lethal force? What makes Gadhafi’s reaction substantively different?
So at this point, we might presumably agree that the argument “We needed to protect the rioters” probably doesn’t hold that much water. So the supporter of world policing might try either “But Gadhafi is a dictator, so it’s different!” or “Actually, we had permission from the rebel transitional council, which was the legitimate government, so we didn’t violate sovereignty.” I think the first rationale is absurd for obvious reasons; the second answer is actually, at least prima facie, somewhat reasonable sounding.
Be that as it may, I don’t think one can consistently uphold it: The world is filled with many would-be states, and their legitimacy internally is not what leads to recognition, but rather their legitimacy externally. In the mind of the Russian government, the invasion of Georgia a few years ago was an intervention on behalf of the sovereign people of South Ossetia; in the eyes of most countries, it was a flagrant violation of Georgia’s national borders.
In short, what makes the rebel national transitional council the legitimate government of Libya has little to do with its internal legitimacy and everything to do with the subjective and self-interested stakes of the international community.
But there’s the rub: As soon as we recognize that the legitimacy is based on external, and thus, national interests, and not on internal factors, we’ve realized that interventionism is really not particularly different than, say, Gadhafi supporting rebel militias as the ‘legitimate government’ in Ireland.
Thus we seem left with only the option to say, “Interventionism is justified in Libya because the group we want to win for our geopolitical interests won’t be able to win without our aid.” For what other reason than geopolitical gain could one government be “chosen” over another? The reason for intervening in Libya, while not elsewhere, has to do with alliances, not suffering.
At any rate, at this point, it doesn’t really matter.
The notion of intervention on the “behalf of the people,” I think, we’ve shown, to be deeply problematic. It is not out of the question that NATO efforts benefit Libyans, but the real motivation nonetheless remains shrouded in what is frankly an overused farce of “democracy for the world.”
I hope Libya has seen the end of oppression and dictatorship, but I do not believe that it was NATO’s job to try to make that a reality. After a certain point, one might remember that regime change as foreign policy is rarely a tool for anything but resentment and instability.