The Strikes on Libya: Humanitarian Intervention, Not Imperial Aggression

This has much more in common with the international response to Bosnia than it does with the war in Iraq


The destroyer USS Barry fires Tomahawk missile at Libya from the Mediterranean Sea. By Reuters.

A coalition of the willing attacks an Arab country; French warplanes strike armored vehicles; American cruise missiles take down air defenses. It all sounds to some too much like Iraq redux. But it's not. The proper analogy is Srebrenica. This is the international community acting under international law to prevent mass murder.

The current military action against Libya is clearly approved by the UN Security Council. Qaddafi has claimed it is illegal, but even China and Russia (who abstained from the UN vote) cannot doubt that Resolution 1973 authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians. Neither will Germany, Brazil, nor India (all of whom abstained). Angela Merkel has already said "We share the aims of this resolution. Don't confuse abstention with neutrality." The others may not like it, but if they had serious legal or political objections they could have voted against. Or maybe their interests in becoming permanent Security Council members overwhelmed their reserves. Either way, the resolution had all the votes it needed.

These strikes are not based on doubtful evidence. Qaddafi has said plainly what he intends to do to civilians who resist, even peacefully, and he has demonstrated repeatedly that he is prepared to carry out his threats. Even on the morning of the attacks, his armor entered Benghazi, in clear contradiction of his own Foreign Minister's declaration that Tripoli would respect the cease-fire. Later Qaddafi's spokesman disowned the foreign minister's statement.

There is a solid coalition backing the military action, one that includes several Arab countries as well as the U.S., France and the United Kingdom. Even the Italians, who have historically close relations with Libya and even with Qaddafi personally, are on board. Iraq, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates were present for the meeting in Paris that launched implementation of the UN resolution, as was the Arab League. (Saudi Arabia was missing.) While Russia, China, India, and Brazil were absent, Germany was present.

The U.S., while it has claimed outsized credit for the diplomacy, is not visibly in the lead of the military action. UK and France have claimed that honor, with NATO as the operational forum. American contributions are likely to be substantial, in particular when it comes to cruise missiles, intelligence, command-and-control, and other U.S. assets. But this is not an American operation with a coalition tacked on.

Which leaves the question of purpose. Is this offensive, like the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, an effort at regime change, with Qaddafi the ultimate target? Or is the objective, as Hillary Clinton claimed after the Paris meeting, only to protect civilians? For the moment, this is a distinction without a difference. Unless Qaddafi changes not just his tune but his behavior, he represents an imminent threat to civilians throughout Libya. It is up to him to convince the coalition that he is prepared to change his behavior, as he successfully did in 2003 when he gave up his nuclear weapons program.

But it seems Qaddafi won't change: He appears as attached to the use of force against his people as Ratko Mladic was against thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia. Qaddafi rightly knows he can only stay in power if he can kill Libyans.

Srebrenica, not Iraq, is the right historical precedent for what is happening in Libya. In 1995 the West failed its declared intention to protect civilians in a Muslim-populated enclave in eastern Bosnia, declared a "safe area" by the UN. There weren't enough Dutch peacekeepers in the area to defend the Muslims and, as a result, thousands of men and boys were massacred in cold blood.

Only a few weeks later NATO responded to Serb attack on another "safe area," Sarajevo. NATO launched a bombing campaign that broke apart the Bosnian Serb Army and allowed Croat and Muslim Federation forces to advance on the Serb army. As the Serbs reeled from the air attack, they took hostages and used them as human shields. They also parked armored vehicles near mosques and schools. We should expect Qaddafi to do likewise.

When NATO stopped the war, the Muslim Federation had taken about 66 percent of Bosnian territory and might well have gotten to 80 percent within 10 days. At the Dayton Peace Accords, we rolled the federation forces back to 51 percent of the territory, because of a previous agreement between parties on how to bring peace to Bosnia. This decision to curb the federation made implementing peace the difficult task that it remains today, more than 15 years after the end of the conflict.

If history is a guide, then, the next big decision on Libya will be when to draw down the international military campaign. Does it stop when Qaddafi backs down, even if his forces still control a good part of Libya? That would be a hard peace to implement. Or do we wait a bit until his regime collapses and he flees or dies? This may be as important as the decision to launch the military strikes, as it will determine whether Libya remains a single state or suffers the kind of semi-dismemberment that still makes Bosnia, and Iraq, difficult places to govern.