Libya No-Fly Zone: “Limited Intervention” Is Like a Gateway Drug for War

Having mixed feelings about the no-fly zone established over Libya by the UN Security Council seems wholly appropriate. One can’t ignore the massacre perpetrated by Gaddhafi’s air-force, yet at the same time, events of the past decade have given the concept of “humanitarian intervention” a black eye. We can thank the neocons for that. The good news is that Obama said exactly the right thing about his policy at today’s presser:
Obama, offering his first justification to Americans for getting the U.S. military involved in Libya, said the goal is to protect Libyan citizens from what he called Gaddafi’s campaign of repression against his people. And he said the U.S. role would be limited. “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya and we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya,” he said.
The problem is that it’s easier said than done; once the “international community” resolves to use military force, history suggests those modest goals are easily replaced with a more far-reaching policy — it’s easier to engage militarily than it is to disengage. The classic example is probably Truman’s decision not to cease his campaign in Korean after achieving the originally stated goal of pushing the North Koreans past the 38th parallel — a decision that cost tens of thousands of lives before eventually leading to a decades-long stalemate along that very same 38th parallel. But Bush the senior’s intervention in Somalia is also illustrative, and more similar to Libya in terms of context. Most people think of Somalia as a disaster — a boondoggle made famous by Blackhawk Down. But what many don’t remember is that it began with what was arguably among the most successful examples of humanitarian intervention in the history of the United Nations. In the early 1990s, Somalia was facing a humanitarian crisis — its people were starving. Aid was being diverted by the “Somali warlords” and aid workers’ lives were being threatened. The UN Security Council authorized a modest intervention, UNOSOM I, with very limited and achievable goals: to create a safe zone through which vital humanitarian supplies could be delivered. This worked pretty well: Blue Helmets secured the main port, and the major thoroughfares through which food, medicine and other relief aid could be delivered. It wasn’t perfect, however. The warring factions defied the UN, the ceasefire that had been established was broken many times and less than 100% of the aid got through. But matters got considerably worse with the launch of UNOSOM II, which had a much broader mandate — nation-building — and authorized all necessary means to achieve it. Of course, authorizing and doing are two different things, and the UN has no troops of its own, so what we eventually ended up with was a sweeping mandate backed by a woefully insufficient military force for the task at hand. The legitimacy of the intervention was questioned, and the whole enterprise soon devolved into a typical interventionist farce. So the worrisome thing about this Libyan no-fly zone is what happens next. Gaddhafi isn’t going to cede power, his forces appear to be in control of large swaths of the country. His military probably won’t be able to simply crush the rebel forces with ease, which is obviously a good thing. But it means we’ll likely see a stand-off, and it will be very tempting for the “international community,” having invested in the despot’s ouster, to escalate that no-fly zone to a peace-keeping force in Benghazi, and who knows where that might lead. The “limited humanitarian intervention” certainly has its appeal, but easily becomes a gateway drug leading to the hard stuff.