What's at stake in Libya

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President Obama’s decision to join the Western coalition in its assault on pro-Qaddafi forces raises, as any use of force ordered by a U.S. president does, important constitutional and legal questions. Does the president’s decision fall under the executive privileges codified under the War Powers Act or does such a large campaign constitute a de facto state of war between the United States and Libya that only Congress can approve? Unfortunately owing to the temporal press of the crises they’ve confronted or a general reluctance to have their justifications for use of force put under a civic microscope, in the past, and in this instance, U.S. presidents have been unwilling to take their case before the Congress and by extension the American people and have essentially forged ahead, presumably planning apologies later rather than seeking permission now.

It is fair to challenge the president’s decision to support U.N. Security Council resolution 1973’s no-fly zone based on these important standards—and it is even more important to have this discussion now that the aims and the size of this coalition’s air assault have broadened dramatically (if predictably). But the legality and the wisdom of the president’s use of force in this instance remains an important internal matter for U.S. citizens to work through. From an international relations’ viewpoint, what is of greatest import in the coalition’s use of force is the application, and now the viability, of the emerging doctrine of the “responsibility to protect.” The RtP, the idea that outside states have an obligation to intervene when another state engages in war crimes or genocide within its own borders, has grown in recent years out of abject failures to intervene when defenseless people were threatened by their own governments in Rwanda, the Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (you may notice all these examples share African zip codes). A contrite West has for the most part signed on to this idea so that such humanitarian catastrophes may be prevented in the future. Though it was not described in these terms at the time, the RtP was part of the rationale for the U.S. role in suppressing the Serbia advance in Kosovo.

Libya presents the first major test of multilateral test of RtP—assuming you accept the notion that it was Qaddafi’s promise to liquidate his opponents in Benghazi that led to this intervention (some don’t, take a gander at Tariq Ali’s scorching assessment of the West’s true intentions in Libya in the UK’s Guardian). Inevitably as an important international doctrine like RtP evolves, it can appear inchoate, even wrongheaded. Americans have been taught to think of use of force only in terms of national security or U.S. strategic interest (even when such grounds for use of force were themselves suspect). It will be hard for the public to accept a commitment to use of force based on protecting the innocent or defenseless in other nations since it inevitably will put American lives on the line, not to mention that such efforts will be costly during a time when the nation already agonizes over its fiscal deficits.

I suspect that the President’s intentions are good, even noble, in Libya, and under the War Powers Act, legal; only time will tell if they were wise, however. It could be the United States was bum-rushed into this campaign by European allies groping for an endpoint to the apparently endless instability in the Middle East and North Africa, worrying over a wave of refugee flooding over Europe’s borders. But even if this application of RtP cannot be ethically challenged, it could still turn out that the West’s strategy in this undertaking was flawed, that other avenues could have been explored, that a tyrant like Qaddafi has reserves of malevolence we cannot neutralize even with sophisticated fighter jets and the most precisely executed military assaults. If that’s the case, it is perhaps cruel to say it, but there is more at stake here than the success of the eastern rebellion and the lives of Qaddafi’s opposition.

If the West gets this wrong, for instance, killing noncombatants itself or endangering the people it purports to protect or, worst of all, eventually abandoning the effort, exhausted before a defiant Qaddafi (thus abandoning eastern Libya to his tender mercies), the Libya adventure could prove a huge setback to this important and still maturing doctrine. It may take years and any number of humanitarian disasters to come before anyone will have the nerve to invoke RtP again.