Libya Intervention Today, Sudan Tomorrow?

Tension between North and South Sudan could soon devolve into mass atrocities. But the same conditions that brought U.S. intervention to Libya are extremely unlikely to land us in Sudan.

Miller June2 p.jpg

Pete Muller/AP


As South Sudan prepares to declare independence on July 9, the soon-to-be-state teeters on the brink of war. Northern Sudan's government raised tensions last week by seizing a key town in the disputed Abyei region, which straddles what will become the border between the two Sudans. The United Nations estimates that clashes between northern and southern forces have already displaced more than 30,000 civilians. Khartoum has also announced plans to occupy the disputed Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan provinces within days. These tensions are not the only cause of South Sudan's instability. Lacking basic infrastructure and a functional government, some aid workers are calling it a "pre-failed state". Its fragility has allowed opportunist militia leaders to stoke deadly inter-ethnic violence.

Many observers fear mass violence against civilians if Sudan slides back into full-scale war. In February 2010, former Director of National Intelligence Denis Blair testified before the Senate, "mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan." Atrocity watchdogs have also raised warning signals. Minority Rights Group International's annual list of "peoples under threat" ranks southern Sudanese second only to Somalis, and Genocide Watch reports that "current massacres" are taking place already.

If Sudan's atrocities escalate, will President Barack Obama intervene as he did in Libya? Or, will he avoid U.S. involvement as President Bill Clinton did in response to the Rwandan genocide? An analysis of when the U.S. intervenes, why, and to what end suggests that he will take the middle road between these two policies.

As with his two post-Cold War predecessors, Obama has taken what could be termed a "humanitarian realist" approach toward mass atrocities. That is to say, he intervenes only if he perceives that (1) U.S.-led military force can stop the bloodshed at an acceptable cost to the American public; (2) the atrocities threaten American interests; and (3), the public or administration officials have deep humanitarian concern about the situation. Obama judged that Libya met all three criteria. The Rwandan genocide, however, did not meet any in Clinton's view at the time that violence began there. Should widespread atrocities break out in South Sudan, the Obama administration would likely see it as meeting the latter two criteria: significant humanitarian concern and threats to U.S. national interest. As for the first criterion, however, Obama is not likely to see military action as viable given U.S. commitments elsewhere and the challenges posed by intervening in a potentially bloody, multi-faceted conflict. Thus, while the United States might attempt to mitigate the violence, it would probably not intervene.

In his March 28 speech at National Defense University, Obama laid out how the Libya intervention fit the humanitarian realist criteria. The United States, in his words, "had the ability to stop [Libya leader Muammar] Qaddafi's forces in their tracks." Arguing for the mission's viability, Obama emphasized that the U.S. military was operating as part of a "strong and growing coalition," reducing the "risk and cost of operation." Qaddafi threatened to national interests, according to the president, because the United States had to stand by its European allies and preserve the Arab Spring's momentum. Recognizing the humanitarian concern for Libyan civilians, Obama stated that he "refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves." Consequently, the U.S. has dedicated more than 8,000 personnel and flown more than 2,000 sorties as part of the international community's civilian protection mission in Libya.

Presented by

Andrew Miller

Andrew C. Miller recently graduated from Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program. He has also worked on USAID-funded projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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