What Libya says about intervention
August 5th, 2014
12:18 PM ET

What Libya says about intervention

By Matthew Waxman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew Waxman is the Liviu Librescu Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law. The views expressed are his own.

Last month, American diplomats and Marines were evacuated from Tripoli. The 2011 international coalition intervention in Libya was supposed to be a step forward for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine – the notion that if a state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, it becomes the international community's responsibility to do so. Tragically, the current collapse of governance and bloody infighting among factional militias there will instead result in a step backwards for this important principle.

Back in March 2011, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which imposed a no-fly zone and authorized member states to "take all necessary measures" to protect civilians under vicious attack from Moammar al-Gadhafi’s government. The resolution passed with 10 votes in favor and five abstentions, including by permanent members Russia and China. In authorizing force, the U.N. Security Council cited the Libyan government’s betrayal of its responsibility to protect its population. Many advocates of intervention saw this as especially significant because Russia and China, as well as many ex-colonial states of the global South, had generally resisted such infringements on the sanctity of state sovereignty.

During and immediately after the ensuing military intervention that ultimately helped dislodge the odious Gadhafi regime, commentators made two exaggerated claims – in opposite directions. To some proponents of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, this was a defining moment of advancement, although such a claim overstated the precedential value of Security Council consensus on a uniquely isolated government that even the Arab League had shunned.

To some critics of the intervention, on the other hand, NATO and the United States had overplayed their hand by taking a limited U.N. Security Council authorization of protective force and pursuing all-out regime change, thereby provoking the ire of Russia and China, who claimed a bait and switch. But this claim overstated Russia and China’s surprise that the objective of NATO intervention was to support Gadhafi’s overthrow – they knew what they were voting for, but saw this as an opportunity to exact diplomatic costs and send signals about cases like Syria that they cared more about.

True, there was an element of truth in both claims, but both also reflect a rush to judgment – the practical results of actions matter greatly, especially in the eyes of governments weary of war or skeptical of the intentions of major military powers.

Advocates of international legal reform have a particular tendency to focus on formal expressions of support or dissent – Security Council or General Assembly votes, for example – in measuring the progress of international norms. Yet the success or failure of normative developments depends heavily on results. Indeed, one of the very arguments leveled by states hostile to, or skeptical of, the Responsibility to Protect is that outside military intervention is likely to sow turmoil. That’s what makes the current Libyan collapse and militia warfare so tragic, not only for its population and region, but for the ideals that justified intervention.

Among Western governments and elites, the 1999 Kosovo intervention generally represents today an idea that a military intervention can be morally justified, even if not formally legal under international law. The 2003 Iraq War is, by contrast, often viewed as standing for the dangers of preemptive or preventive war.

However, in both cases, the U.N. Security Council membership – and the community of states generally – was sharply split at the time, and the outcome of those interventions greatly shaped the way they are viewed today. For example, imagine if instead of establishing conditions for peace accords, NATO’s Kosovo intervention had gotten bogged down in a long-term civil war. On the other hand, imagine if U.S.-led coalition forces had found that Saddam Hussein’s regime was readying a nuclear bomb under the noses of U.N. inspectors, or if its overthrow had paved the way to a stable democracy. Many governments would not be so quick today in dismissing preemptive self-defense against rogue states as reckless.

So what does all this suggest about Libya?

The reality is that the legacy for international norms of military intervention is still being written and it is unclear how, looking back, the Libya “model” will be viewed. That being said, it is hard to imagine the failure of the intervening powers to either predict the current chaos or invest in necessary follow-up to prevent it will prove to have done anything to strengthen the case for military intervention in the future.

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Topics: Libya

soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Allan Kinsman©

    The idea of reevaluating military intervention is long over due. I realized this from the experience I had in Vietnam. I would go further to say for years we have misdirected our collective energies to have arrived where we are presently. Take a view of our country. Massive amounts of money are being thrown at government to affect change in every fundamental way. The result is not certain unless principle can find a way back into our society. It would appear elections have not been a vehicle of constructive change it was once thought.

    August 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm |
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    If Libya traces us anything at all, is that we need stay out of places where we have absolutely no business! Our intervention in Libya was another gigantic mistake like so many others recently.

    August 5, 2014 at 4:20 pm |
  3. bobcat2u

    What Libya says about intervention.

    As far as I can see, it says the same as Iraq. It says the same as Egypt. It says the same as Afghanistan. And as Allan said, Vietnam, which was the beginning of our ill advised interventionist policies. In Vietnam and since, they have insisted our troops fight the politically correct war. What the hell is that ? Our interventionist policies since then have done nothing but free up the radicals in those countries, and now we see the aftermath. I still to this day can't figure out why were in Vietnam. We spend 50,000 lives on the ideal of stopping the spread of communism, and then just give them the people on a platter. I was one of the lucky ones, I came home "physically" unscathed.
    But to see us make the same mistake over and over again is unfathomable.

    August 5, 2014 at 4:34 pm |
    • odious not

      If your industry is all war based then its not a mistake is it? its just evil and we have to do so much better... and we will. I see it going to happen... its just a jump to the left... and then a step to the right...

      August 6, 2014 at 10:53 am |
  4. Allan Kinsman©

    It is commonly said but not commonly understood: the one thing we have learned from history is that we have learned nothing from history. When we have reached a point of time in a future world perhaps the people of that time can begin the long and beautiful time of living in the present by not forgetting the past in all its forms rather a contiuum of repeating it. Perhaps it will be America.

    August 5, 2014 at 5:46 pm |
    • bobcat2u

      I liked that Alan. Very well said.

      August 5, 2014 at 6:02 pm |
  5. The GOP Solution

    The GOP Prayer/Mantra/Solution: Dear God...With your loving kindness, help us to turn all the Old, Sick, Poor, Non-white, Non-christian, Female, and Gay people into slaves. Then, with your guidance and compassion, we will whip them until they are Young, Healthy, Rich, White, Christian, Male, and Straight. Or until they are dead. God...Grant us the knowledge to then turn them into Soylent Green to feed the military during the next "unfunded/off-the-books" war. God...Give us the strength during our speeches to repeatedly yell........TAX CUTS FOR THE RICH!!!..........and........GET RID OF SS AND MEDICARE!!!
    In your name we prey (purposely misspelled, or is it?)........Amen

    August 5, 2014 at 5:57 pm |
  6. Writt Woodson

    If the bombing of Libya in 2011 can be called intervention, then it is certainly a new low for what is called intervention. How can you bomb your way toward peace, prosperity and stability? It is nonsensical. You get what you pay for. So, unless the international community was going to put boots on the ground and provide some transitional hands on stability and expertise, then it should have stayed away. - The stakes are higher with the emergence of the Islamic State.

    August 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
    • odious not

      Even if they put sandals on the ground its not going to work, just leave them alone and tell them the truth. If you are fighting, no one is coming and no one is buying your oil and by the time you all stop fighting, the earth will be onto another energy standard and your oil will be worthless. – Tell the truth and maybe apologize although that leaves lawsuits open apparently... and trust me, they will sue. they were sued so they will sue. But, there in the alleyways of Tripoli are rail road tracks going no where... there on the edge of darkness, there rides the peace train...

      August 6, 2014 at 11:48 am |
  7. bran94wolf

    What Libya says about intervention, is exactly this, You cant always pretend to be Rambo. As such even the intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo Balkans have made things worse.

    August 6, 2014 at 4:30 am |
  8. jonam

    It's high time US intervenes in its own country and save its country from the clutches of Zio Matrix who control everything. Now they want to intervene in the Ukraine border issue for what? For becoming the biggest oil exporter? Russia is still the ideal solution for Europe's supply.

    August 6, 2014 at 5:03 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well put, jonam. I agree.

      August 6, 2014 at 10:47 am |
    • sly

      You my friend are an idiot.

      America is dominated by the Mitt Romney's of this world: Rich White Christian Males.

      Only a fool makes up other conspiracy theories. Go back to your compound in Waco Texas.

      August 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini

        Quite true sly, quite true indeed. The M.I.C. is made up of rich men who don't have to pay their fair share of the income taxes.

        August 8, 2014 at 11:23 am |
      • sly nailed it on this one

        You have nailed it sly! Rich white christian males, aka: RRR (rich racist republicans), aka: the old boy's club, have been running not just America, but the world, for a long time now. The problem with that is, if you are not a rich white christian male (once called a WASP = white anglo saxon protestant) you are pretty much screwed! So over many centuries, millions of people that did not fall into this "king of the mountain" category, have finally gotten educated, smart, savvy about the games going on on this planet, and have finally banded together. So that explains why RRR Donald Trump attacked Obama so viciously, even claiming that Obama was not a US citizen. It also explains why RRR Barry Diller channeled Fox News into becoming a "hate TV" network, that has been teaching all whites to start hating non-whites, for over 15 years now! Scared little white boys, trying desperately to hold on to the status quo.......

        August 8, 2014 at 3:28 pm |
  9. exCaptain

    The intervention in Libya was a typical Western imperialist onslaught on a Third World country unable to defend itself. It's happened time and time again over the past two centuries. And there's always some reason, usually some faux humanitarian one or something to do with self-defense, to destroy a country and subject it to colonial or neo-colonial rule.
    NATO's intervention was designed to achieve regime-change from the day it started. I don't know where the author got the idea that China and Russia knew what they were voting for - they certainly protested bitterly and publicly from the very start.
    And since we're talking about the Right to Protect, let's never forget the first instance when that was implemented - in the Congo in the late 19th Century when Belgium's King Leopold bamboozled the world with his supposed action to rid the country of "slave traders." The result? Eight million dead Congolese. But we don't mention them much for obvious reasons.

    August 6, 2014 at 9:10 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well put, exCaptain. It's good to see intelligent people posting here.

      August 6, 2014 at 10:49 am |
    • love this comment

      not just the last 2 centuries. go back to 1492 AD. the Spanish were the first group of Europeans that started this whole imperialism / colonialism thing. remember them? sail your ships to every place imaginable, kill as many natives as you can, steal as much gold and resources as you can, so that your queen can adorn her castle with gold???..... and the Spanish were just implementing an idea, using ships, that the Greeks, Romans and Vikings before them had mastered. There was a 1000 year gap in between the "murder foreigners" phase, called the dark ages, wherein the Europeans murdered each other............

      August 6, 2014 at 12:40 pm |
    • love this comment

      King Leopold of Belgium was the epitome of horrible European behavior. The guy goes to the African Congo on a hunting "shikaar" trip, to kill lions or tigers, discovers that there are many natural resources there, figures out a great excuse to go there with military personnel (yeah right, he is going to stop the slave trade), kills millions of natives, steals as many natural resources as he possibly can, even builds a railway to more efficiently loot the place, and then ditches the Congo and retires in Belgium, in a huge castle, with billions stashed away............ what better definition of the word sicko European rapist???

      August 6, 2014 at 4:11 pm |
  10. odious not

    This is the thinking of a member of the CFR? No wonder the world is burning. No one believes you guys any more. We know you broke into Libya, we know you lied to the majority of Libyans who are all 18 and under (in the majority) and I think its the worst thing I have ever seen done in the name of any kind of legitimate government and it was to silence a truth teller. but how did that work out for you? – Every time i have to pay a tax here now I feel like TS Lawrence!

    August 6, 2014 at 10:49 am |
    • George patton

      Thank you, odious not. You nailed it!!!

      August 6, 2014 at 11:14 am |
  11. chri§§y

    Lol @ sly...youre joking right? Dominated by rich white males? No freakin way!

    August 7, 2014 at 11:46 pm |
  12. why intervention is flawed

    US foreign policy for centuries has been: America should dominate the world, any force that opposes the US, deserves to be destroyed. There are huge problems with this logic. First of all, it collides with the christian principles: thou shallt not kill and love thy neighbor. RRR's (rich racist republicans) and WASP's (white anglo saxon protestants) are supposed to be christian right? oh never mind, these are the same buggers that brought over 20 million blacks from Africa here in slave ships, and the same buggers that passed the "Removal of Indians" Act of 1890, that gave the US Cavalry the right to murder over 40 million Native Americans in cold blood...... I just got sick to my stomach...... excuse me while I throw up...... will continue later............

    August 8, 2014 at 3:42 pm |
  13. why intervention is flawed

    Phew.... ok, I'm back..... where was I?..... oh yes, US foreign policy. So, let's take our latest foreign policy debacle in Iraq. We went in there, in March 2003, on false pretexts and trumped up charges, with over 200,000 troops, all because we did not like Saddam Hussein! We violated International Law. GW Bush and Dick Cheney must be tried for this crime at the ICJ, in the Netherlands, as War Criminals, but that is another story. So what did we do in Iraq? We ended up murdering 850,000 Iraqis, displacing and rendering homeless 3.5 million Iraqis, and completely destroyed their country! So what has resulted from that "intervention"??? All these millions of angry, displaced, people, have joined a group called ISIS, which is just a bunch of Quoran waving angry muslims that want to seek revenge for the US murdering them in cold blood! So who do they pick on? 120,000 christians that just happen to be living in Iraq. Why? Because RRR's and WASP's are supposed to be christian remember??? So the christians in Iraq are paying the ultimate price for OUR WRONG DOING!!!!!! They are being crucified because of our criminal foreign policy! I hope you Americans are happy now.............. excuse me again..... I just got sick in my stomach again..... I have to throw up again..............

    August 8, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
  14. why intervention is flawed

    Phew again..... I'm back again.......... wonder why I keep feeling the need to throw up??? hmmmmm, can't think of any reason..... can you??? Anyway, so what is our response now, to angry Muslims, aka: ISIS, deciding to romp all over what is left of Iraq, and starting to behead Iraqi Christians and stick their heads on poles that are then stuck into the lawn in front of the Iraqi Churches??? We start strafing Iraq, again, again in violation of International Law, with F16's and F18's, hoping to kill the 3.5 million angry Muslims that are beheading the poor Iraqi Christians!!!!!!!!!!! We dare not send another 200,000 troops "on the ground" into Iraq.......... the American people have had enough of this........ and we are flat broke.......... remember??? Us $ 18 trillion in debt!!!!!!! So that's why "intervention" is a bad idea guys...... it only helps ONE group of people in America....... they are the war mongers that have been controlling our parade for a loooooooooooooooooong time now........... they are the US M.I.C............. aka: the Military Industrial Complex of the United States of America............ they have figured out Washington DC a looooooooooooooong time ago............ they have all our politicians in their back pockets........... I mean back wallets............. 🙁

    August 8, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
  15. We have certainly created more terrorists

    Yes, 911 was a terrible thing, but let's look at our response, to figure out of it has even slightly helped to permanently solve the problem. In the 13 years since 911, over 68 Islamic terrorist organizations have sprung up all over the world, most of this stems from some very very angry Muslims, seeing the carnage we left behind in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians for 60 years, and vowing to get even with us some day. It is not unreasonable to assume that there could easily be another 1000 Osama bin Ladens now alive and well, and in training, and slowly and cunningly plotting their next big hit upon us. This is extremely serious. Because Osama was able to get mucho financing from his super rich family in Saudi. If these new 1000 dangerous guys get their hands on mucho financing from Saudi or Qatar or any other super rich Arab state, this is very very bad for the west and the Jews. Can any of us imagine a hit that is 1000 times worse than 911??? Remember that saying: an eye for an eye, until the whole world is blind???

    August 10, 2014 at 3:00 am |
    • and yet, Saudi remains our friend and untouched?

      What is really freaking out billions of people is the simple fact that 15 of those 17 hijackers on 911 were Saudis. For the 5 days after 911, while every single passenger and freight jetliner was grounded by the FAA, just ONE chartered plane flew from JFK to Riyadh. It had each and every single Bin Laden family member that was in the US at that time, on that plane, being flown safely back to Saudi! I know we buy a lot of oil from Saudi and they buy lot of military hardware form us, and that the business and politics between the 2 nations is very cozy, BUT WAIT A MINUTE........... 911 was the biggest terrorist act in human history!!! Why, in God's name did not one US bomb fall on Saudi and over 2 million bombs were dropped on Iraq?????? There is something very very fishy about this yes???? Has money made us that sick???? That screwed up???

      August 10, 2014 at 3:11 am |
  16. Anthony

    Maybe what it says is that we should stay out, unless there is an overriding reason to intervene. And in Libya there was no overriding reason for US intervention (maybe you could argue the Europeans had reason to intervene, to prevent an exodus to Europe of refugees, but that was there problem not ours).

    August 11, 2014 at 9:34 am |
  17. j. von hettlingen

    The author has forgotten to mention that even Putin has assumed this doctrine of "Responsibility to protect" (R2P). Putin has been claiming Russia's responsibility to protect any ethnic Russian living in Eastern Europe, which were parts of the Soviet Union, if they are under attack or exposed to violence.

    August 11, 2014 at 10:24 am |
  18. GeorgeL

    I'll take Ghadaffi anyday over the radical freaks destroying LIbya today

    August 12, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
  19. Awabnavi

    "BUT WAIT A MINUTE" - There is another GREAT BIG MYSTERY – Why is the US ALWAYS attacking SUNNIS? – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, etc.., but NEVER attacking SHIAS in Iran, Iraq, the Gulf nations, etc. GREAT BIG MYSTERY, NO?

    August 15, 2014 at 4:52 am |
  20. hany haddad

    Gadhafi knew that Benghazi was a cesspool of terrorists. His army was prepared to deal with this problem. However without any strategic plan the US and NATO (which is also the US) decided to bomb the Libyan army. After Gadhafi's assassination, Sarkozy, Cameron and US officials (including McCain) went to Tripoli for a victory dance. Results: tens of thousands of Libyans dead, oil export down to zero, nearly all of the foreign reserve (over $100 billion) gone, 4 American dead including the US ambassador, radical islamists in control and no central government. This is what happen when people act without any strategic plan. The blame should go to Hillary Clinton. Samantha Powers and Susan Rice. All three are incompetent and are responsible for destroying Libya. Thank God that their plan to remove Assad in Syria didn't work otherwise we would have had by now an Al-Qaida government in Damascus

    August 15, 2014 at 5:08 pm |
  21. hany haddad

    I am waiting for Fareed Zakaria to invite back to GPS his buddy Bernard Levy who was an outspoken supporter of bombing Libya and removing Gadhafi. How did it work for Libya Bernard??

    August 15, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
  22. desertvoice

    Libya was mishandled badly by the U.S. thinktanks, whoever they were. The security of the U.S. Ambassador, to any moron, not just a Beves & Butthead, required a 1,000 Marines! But someone in the State Department overlooked this vital necessity! That was why the U.S. Ambassador died!

    August 16, 2014 at 4:31 pm |
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    January 9, 2021 at 11:55 pm |
  25. Hugo Cassiday


    January 10, 2021 at 11:40 pm |

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