“Why we Intervened in Libya”

NOTE: This article has been contributed by Tore Hartveit. In addition to citing an important line of reasoning behind the decision to intervene, it also narrates how Tore followed the progress of the Libyan revolution. Thanks for letting me post this here, Tore.

Why we Intervened in Libya

The Arab Spring was ongoing, Tunisia with some violence, Egypt with some violence. We thought and hoped the Arab Spring would spread through more or less peaceful revolutions.

A democratic Arab world would reduce recruitment to violent groups like Alqaeda. The Arab world would be able to take their lives into their own hands. Create growth and economic opportunities for all of their citizens. For Europe, having a stable and prosperous neighboring region is a dream come true. Trade would increase to the benefit of both, and security issues would be much reduced.

Then Gadaffi decided that he would stop the Arab Spring in Libya. The violence he used bared no resemblance to even low standard non-lethal policing efforts. It seems as though the government almost immediately resorted to maximum lethal force in order to crush the uprising in it’s infancy.

If he had succeed he would have set an example for other non-democratic Arab nations to follow: Crush the uprising with maximum force and terror. The MENA countries would have been awash with blood. Violent elements might displace their rage over their own tyrants and focus on the West as the ultimate source of their ills. Alqaida would have had a field day, refugees would have flooded countries in Europe struggling with economic problems and increasing racism and xenophobia.

When the east of Libya was liberated it looked for a moment like a peaceful settlement might happen. But then Saif and Muammar made it clear that they would fight. Quickly the rebels made fast gains moving west. It seemed as though Gaddafi’s forces crumbled or fled in front of an onslaught of popular revolt.

I feared a drawn out conflict. I feared a slow slog would create more divisions and more suffering. Perhaps an endless civil war would erupt with different tribes vying for control like in Somalia. The more people are killed, the harder it is to gain peace. Dead people have friends and relatives who will grieve, but some will also seek revenge. The cycle of violence could become unstoppable.

Then Gadaffi’s organized forces stopped the rebel advance, and turned it into a rout. I felt my fears come true. I suspected that their advance would turn into a slugging match inside Ajdabya and a drawn out civil war.

The international community, under pressure from western populations and rights groups like Amnesty and HRW, established an arms blockade of Libya and referred Libya to the ICC (UNSCr1970). It appeared as though even Russia and China were shaken by the violent means with which Gadaffi sought to remain in control.

There were cries of a no-fly zone at this time. The rebels were being bombed from the air. But a no-fly zone would have made little difference on the ground. Gaddafi’s forces were far superior. A no-fly zone would be a never-ending commitment unless the conflict was resolved. The Iraqi no-fly zones are a case in point, they lasted 10 years until the “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003.

Memories of previous atrocities carried out while the world stood by and did more or less nothing began to creep in. The horror of Rwanda and the Srebrenica massacre are examples of what non-intervention has allowed to happen in the past. The possibility of a new North Korea on the Mediterranean. A Libyan regime perhaps as brutal as the North Korean one, and a destabilizing factor for the free nations of Egypt and Tunisia, would have a terrible impact on southern European Nations, and by extension the rest of Europe.

The world had to do something. The US was best able to intervene militarily. But politically it would be difficult to swallow another war for a war-weary public at home. And the US bombing a Muslim country might even make things worse due to the US image inside the MENA. France and the UK could perhaps intervene, but without legal authority provided by the UNSC it would be a hard sell. Other European states and by extension NATO, would not intervene unless a clear UNSC mandate was available, or at the very least clear support from the nations in the region (Arab League and/or the African Union). 

The call for intervention from the Arab League provided the impetus for an historic UNSC resolution. Gadaffi’s retoric of extermination, his actions in Zawiya, and his forces imminent arrival in Benghazi made the normal game of delaying tactics in the security council untenable and irresponsible. Russia and China, faced with a resolution championed by France and the UK, which the USA seemed to only grudgingly back, out of support for its NATO allies, backed by a clear call from the Arab League, did not dare to stand in its way. Russia and China did not want to be the ones stopping this resolution with Gadaffi’s forces approaching Benghazi. They abstained, and the resolution passed.

I was overjoyed when I saw the vote live. When both the Chinese and the Russians abstained it was a historic moment, which I really couldn’t believe. The world had actually said stop to Gaddafi!

When I read the details of resolution 1973 I was even more surprised. The resolutions had taken lessons from previous no-fly zones. In fact everything except occupation was allowed to protect civilians. In theory, NATO could have landed a brigade in Benghazi and driven all the way to Tripoli and remove Gaddafi, as long as they did not stay to organize the country afterward (which would have amounted to an occupation). This might have saved lives in the short run, but might have been more costly in the long run, so the solution we saw was an intervention with a limited footprint on the ground with extremely accurate air power being used to degrade Gaddafi’s fighting ability.

The Arab Spring could now continue. Dictators would know, that there are some lines they cannot cross in order to remain in power. For the world might again find enough unity to intervene again.

For those who thought that this was about oil, or sand, or imperialism or whatever I hope my explanation has given you second thoughts. All of the countries involved in this process did not do it for two million barrels of oil per day. They did it in response to a complex set circumstances, a complex set of common interests and loyalty to their allies. 

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