Libya as a Model

by Erik Voeten on August 26, 2011 · 8 comments

in Blogs

Perceived military successes almost inevitably invite declarations that a new era has emerged in which future military actions will follow the template created by the recent success; even though the dangers of such analogical reasoning are well understood.

Dan Drezner takes Fareed Zakaria to task for doing exactly this. Zakaria argues that the Libya experience teaches us that the U.S. should only intervene when four criteria are satisfied: international legitimacy (UN Security Council approval), regional legitimacy (the Arab League), a local group committed to fighting, and genuine burden sharing with allies. Drezner argues that:

This sounds great, except that the set of criteria that Zakaria lists is so stringent that I seriously doubt that they will be satisfied again in my lifetime. Russia and China regretted the U.N. support the minute after it passed, and the president of the Arab League had buyer’s remorse almost immediately after NATO started bombing. Even if the Libya operation looks like a success from here on out, there’s no way that list of criteria will be satisfied. Ever.


Now, for those readers worried about the creeping militarization of American foreign policy, this might sound like a great idea, as it creates a ridiculously high barrier for military intervention. And, indeed, so long as these criteria are only used to satisfy humanitarian military interventions, it sounds good. Except that most military interventions aren’t strictly humanitarian. The moment core national interests kick in, these criteria get downgraded from prerequisites to luxuries.

I think this overstates the novelty of the criteria a bit. The first three were always part of the liberal model of humanitarian intervention. They may not be so rare, especially if the insistence on Security Council approval as the only means to acquire international legitimacy is loosened. The real novelty of the Libya intervention was the fact that the U.S. played a critical though not leading role. There are actually many other examples that fit the Zakaria model (e.g. the 1999 Australian-led East Timor intervention, UK-led actions in Sierra Leone) but they carried a much smaller profile, did not involve similar kinds of military resistance, and an even smaller US role.

The key question to me then is not so much whether we have a full new model but whether we can expect similar willingness of European leaders, especially the French and the British, to take a lead role in a conflict of this size? The U.S. may well want this, as Zakaria rightly argues, but what are the incentives for the Europeans to supply genuine burden-sharing? (edit: what I meant here is take a lead role/political ownership. Burden-sharing is quite common but it generally has a ‘follow-the-leader’ character). They have traditionally been reluctant to do this. For example, European leaders critical of the Iraq war had an excellent opportunity to show their true multilateral humanitarian faces on the Darfur conflict. Yet, they did not show up.

A good first step would be to see how this is going to work out for Sarkozy and Cameron. Both of them are under siege domestically. Sarkozy is facing presidential elections in which he is projected to lose against just about any Socialist candidate. This will not be because of Libya. Yet, if Libya can give him a good bounce in the poll, this may reinforce beliefs that it can pay off for European leaders to back an intervention like this. After all, security policy makers are not the only ones prone to analogical reasoning.

{ 8 comments }

Talleyrand August 26, 2011 at 9:26 am

This is a good post, even if the point about the UK and France rests on a monomaniacal insistence that Sarkozy, Cameron, and all other state leaders are only driven by reelection concerns. I especially liked the bookending with the analogical reasoning point (very effective stylistically). And it raises an interesting distinction: even though we as analysts can show that analogies are often misleading, state leaders are probably still subject to fallacious analogical reasoning.

Scott Monje August 26, 2011 at 9:42 am

” . . . what are the incentives for the Europeans to supply genuine burden-sharing?”

I’m not sure you can ask that in a generic sense. Burden sharing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s going to depend on the circumstances of the particular conflict. Intervening in a foreign war is rarely going to pay off electorally unless it can be guaranteed to be fast–or at least low-cost–and successful, or if the war has consequences for the intervening country. Apart from electoral considerations, you have to look at the likely consequences of intervening versus the likely consequences of not intervening in a particular situation. Some of these consequences may be humanitarian in nature; others may have a direct impact (or lack a direct impact) on the countries and decision makers involved, such as a disruption of oil supplies or the potential spread of conflict to neighboring countries.

kerokan August 26, 2011 at 11:50 am

I am worried about the “international legitimacy” condition for future interventions. People seem to forget that the Libya intervention worked because Europe and the US overstepped the UNSC mandate. If they limited the intervention to protecting civilians, then Qaddafi would still hold on to half the country and Libya would be a divided country prone to exporting instability.

Despite the happy outcome for humanitarianism, in the future China and Russia will be more reluctant to grant “international legitimacy”. Then what?

Scott Monje August 26, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I wonder what’s really going through their minds in Moscow and Beijing. They knew what they were doing when they abstained in the Security Council. As much as they claim they didn’t authorize anything more than protecting civilians, narrowly defined, how surprised could they have been? They raised some objections and talked of mediation, but did they do anything to obstruct the operation? Perhaps they believed active obstructionism would be too costly in other arenas; perhaps they were just saying what they said for show. It would be interesting to know.

Mike August 26, 2011 at 5:05 pm

I think this maybe an emerging trend, but Libya more or less followed the Cote d’Ivoire model set months earlier. Both were led by france. A challenge emerged and a dictator reacted undemocratically (whether shooting protesters or not respecting elections). Dictator the lost legitimacy in the eyes of a regional organisation (ECOWAS) and the UN Security Council. Both were areas with resources of economic importance to Europe (40% of the world’s cocoa, massive French investment). The African Union, led by South Africa, came down on the opposite side from Europe, and clumsily tried to mediate just like Libya. The challenge got western support, but only resulted in a stalemate for months. Eventually french military backing helped the rebels to advance, but special forces and helicopters from outside were needed to deliver the coup de grace.

While analogical reasoning can be dangerous, I think the fact that both situations were orchestrated by more or less the same small group of people (and both led by Sarkozy), suggests that at a model is sort of emerging.

LFC August 27, 2011 at 11:56 am

A rather different perspective on the Cote d’Ivoire situation is in Bassett & Strauss, “Defending Democracy in Cote d’Ivoire,” Foreign Affairs (July/Aug 2011). They argue that “the strong and consistent positions of the AU and ECOWAS…proved [to be] critical…” in terms of facilitating the UNSC res. that led to military action, etc.

Fred August 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm

France faced the option of either aiding the Libyan rebellion or having 250,000+ refugees in Paris. Former Defense Secretary Gates may be correct in that Libya is not vital to our national interests, it is to France – and the rest of the EU.

Good Point November 8, 2011 at 10:56 pm

Fred August 26, 2011 at 9:08 pm
“France faced the option of either aiding the Libyan rebellion or having 250,000+ refugees in Paris. Former Defense Secretary Gates may be correct in that Libya is not vital to our national interests, it is to France – and the rest of the EU.”

Very good point, which is another reason why this model will most likely not repeat itself. The stars aligned for this one, but the likelihood of them aligning anytime soon is slim.

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