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.

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