Westbrook: Half-Measures in Libya will Fail

Here is David A. Westbrook’s guest column for Informed Comment It is in many ways a critique of the position Juan Cole has taken, that a limited air intervention in Libya was necessary and desirable. Westbrook argues that the intervention is flawed policy because half-hearted. IC is open to alternative points of view and seeks to foster reasoned dialogue on public affairs. .

The Unbearable Lightness of Our Libyan War

Let me suggest a rule of thumb: we should not undertake the moral burden of killing when we are unwilling to undertake the existential risk of dying.

This rule of thumb raises substantial problems for our involvement in Libya. I freely admit that the US government had no good options with regard to Libya, which at least under prevailing conditions of uncertainty presented both the Scylla of another Rwanda, and the Charybdis of another Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

The White House made the call, and chose intervention, binding the nation. I do not intend to second guess the substance of that decision here; I am grateful the decision was not mine to make. Nor do I here wish to discuss whether, as a matter of US law, the executive adequately involved the legislature.
Even so granting the rightness and the legality of the administration’s actions, however, I think it deeply regrettable that we – and make no mistake, it is our war, now – have chosen to proceed in irresponsible fashion, that is, we have tried to deny we are going to war.

Such denial of our responsibility is both insufficiently morally serious and bad foreign policy.
Addressing the nation on Monday night, the President emphasized that command of the operation would be transferred to NATO, at times seeming to argue that this was not, or would no longer be, a US intervention. Our role, he said, “is limited.” And this weekend, US planes stopped flying missions, in hope that the rebels, with air cover from European air forces, would prevail. But NATO has always been dominated by the US. Our planes and personnel have flown a substantial portion of the missions, and our diplomatic and military infrastructure makes the enterprise possible. Simply put, the United States is fighting in Libya.

The fact that multilateral institutions, namely the United Nations, NATO, and the Arab League, have approved of at least some of our action does not alter the basic facts that US personnel, using US assets, are committed to foreign combat. Again, this is our war, and while having allies is important, and getting the good housekeeping seal of approval for such violence from international institutions is generally preferable to the unilateral action of prior administrations, we are hardly relieved of our responsibility.

Similarly, on March 28 the President publicly reassured the nation and the world that we would not deploy troops in Libya. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said there “will be no boots on the ground.” On the same day, however, we learned that the CIA has been operating in Libya for weeks, presumably wearing sneakers. While we may not have troops in Libya, if our engagements in Pakistan and Yemen are any guide, we have agents authorized to kill, eyes in the sky, and we will have warheads on foreheads (drone attacks) soon if we do not already. But, good heavens, no troops. Moreover, we are assured that CIA activity in Libya now is nothing like the CIA activity that served as precursor to invasion of Afghanistan. Obviously, completely different.

Instead, in Libya we have been maintaining a no-fly zone, not unlike the one we imposed on Iraq for years, until a ground invasion was deemed necessary after all. Exploiting our air superiority is tempting: perhaps we can do the right thing, in this case prevent “a massacre” that Gaddafi might well have ordered, without putting our own people at risk. But suppose the leader does not leave, and his forces regroup, and continue to advance? Suppose we declare a no-fly zone, and the massacre happens anyway, as happened in Bosnia? Suppose the insurgency fails, perhaps because there are many people who genuinely support the current regime? Or even suppose the insurgency succeeds, and the rebels are not what might be hoped? Suppose we are simply unsure of ourselves? In such circumstances, should we be killing people from the air, because it is not very expensive for us, and maybe things will sort themselves out for the best on the ground that we and our allies fly over? That is, if we are insufficiently committed to a civil order to put our own people at risk, are we morally serious enough to kill people, hoping that civil society miraculously sprouts after our rain of destruction?

Our lack of moral seriousness is deeply troubling, but the US tendency to deny responsibility for its actions is also bad foreign policy. While the multilateralism of the current administration is good manners and good politics, nobody thinks that NATO command makes this somehow an un-American fight. The fact that US force is exercised in Libya by CIA personnel does not make the US any less responsible in the minds of the Libyans, or for that matter, the rest of the world. And whether the no-fly zone succeeds or fails – or fails and we take further actions, at least resuming combat missions – the use of US planes to bomb Libyan positions is an act of war by the United States. Justified, maybe, but war for certain.

In minimizing or evading responsibility for wars that we undeniably wage, we appear to be disingenuous, thereby deepening suspicion about our motives. We lend credence to the tales told by our adversaries – that the CIA is fighting for our own selfish (oil) interests and against those of the Libyans, that the patriotic thing to do is to resist those who would destabilize Libya and reinstall a form of colonialism . . . we have been here before. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the limited Middle Eastern support for our intervention in Libya seems to be melting away already. In fighting disingenuously, even covertly, we make ourselves easy to demonize, and easy to oppose, for years and years. Either our fight is worthy, and should be publicly espoused and prosecuted with vigor, or it is not worthy, and we should not engage.

Hence my rule of thumb: if we are serious, we should be willing to put troops on the ground and fight. In Libya, that probably would have meant defending some rather arbitrarily defined territory against the advance of Gaddafi’s troops, and then working for a negotiated solution on that basis, ideally with an appropriately drafted UN mandate. If we are not serious, however, we should not be killing people, hoping to tilt some balance in some direction that might be more advantageous for us. But hey, who knows?


David A. Westbrook is Floyd H. & Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar and Professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, State University of New York. His latest book is Deploying Ourselves: Islamist Violence and the Responsible Projection of US Force (Paradigm 2010).

21 Responses

  1. Agree completely! Another limited “war” was Reagan’s attack on Libya in April 1986. The attack was the direct cause of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing that killed a few of us civilian American suckers who pay for empire. If we don’t like Gaddafi, then go to war with him, get rid of him. Half-measures won’t do and actually make us LESS safe (as in 1986 when Gaddafi was left in power to plot the bombing of Pan Am 103, assuming he was the culprit). But Americans prefer quick “fast food” wars where our guys are almost 100% safe from dying. We should call such policy “McWar Making.” By only going to all-out war, not McWar, I believe most Americans would have opposed the action in Libya as I have at the outset.

  2. “Either our fight is worthy, and should be publicly espoused and prosecuted with vigor, or it is not worthy, and we should not engage. Hence my rule of thumb: if we are serious, we should be willing to put troops on the ground and fight.”

    Who wants that? There aren’t many people still alive who were of age in 1941, when the United States last went to war, but there are plenty of serious people who can imagine what it was like back then and what it would be like now if the United States waged war with what you call vigor. I don’t think anyone in the world wants to see that. Or did you have something less vigorous in mind?

  3. David Westbrook writes:

    This at the beginning:

    “Let me suggest a rule of thumb: we should not undertake the moral burden of killing when we are unwilling to undertake the existential risk of dying.”

    And much the same at the end:

    “Hence my rule of thumb: if we are serious, we should be willing to put troops on the ground and fight.”

    Two comments:

    1. Good for Mr. Westbrook for pointing this out. I’ve been more than a little perplexed at all those who’ve argued the US should jump into this war for humanitarian reasons, only to insist in the next breath that we should draw a clear line at “boots on the ground.” Why? If we conclude it’s our moral duty to intervene, why should we NOT put boots on the ground? Mr. Westbrook makes the same point.

    2. Mr. Westbrook leaves unclear whether he thinks the US to get more involved or not. This may well reflect humility: He is merely explaining that the US must acknowledge that it is at war and, therefore, decide whether it is going to do it right – i.e. put boots on the ground – or pull out.

    Though it may be unfair to Mr. Westbrook to speculate on his personal views – and, he might properly argue, irrelevant in any case – I see hints in his writing here that he believes the US has already made an irrevocable decision to enter this war and thus has only one real choice: stay the course, and expand the US’ involvement if necessary – that to not do so would be irresponsible.

    If that is Mr. Westbrook believes (and if he does not, my apology to him: let my finger point instead to those readers who do believe that; I have no doubt there are same), I disagree. It does not necessarily follow from a country’s admission that it is at war that the country is morally obliged to stay in that war, much less to expand its involvement.

    In some wars, that is true; in other wars, it is not. If the US’ entry into this war had somehow exposed one side or the other to greater risk than if the US had not entered the war (such as when we encouraged Iraqi Shiites to undertake a rebellion in 1991 that they probably would not have undertaken absent our encouragement), arguably we’d have a moral duty to stand by whichever side we’d exposed to more risk by entering the war.

    But I don’t believe that happened this time. If the US just pulled out right now, I doubt the rebels would be in any worse a position than they’d have been in if the US had never intervened in the first place. Indeed, they probably would be better off, since Gaddafi would think twice before carrying out any massacre, knowing full well that the US was still keeping a careful eye on things and had already intervened once without any massacre even having occurred.

    In short, the US has not made an irrevocable decision that it must now make the best of. Instead, it’s faced with a new decision each day: Should it stay or should it go?

    I’ll be less circumspect than Mr. Westbrook in answering that question: It should go.

  4. This author’s discussion of the decision to wage limited war in support of the Libyan rebels fails to incorporate the reality of internal Libyan politics, and the consequences on Libyan politics of the presence of American troops in Libya, into its analysis. Simply dismissing the consequences of a heavy American ground footprint in Libya as a “lack of seriousness” doesn’t change the reality that, as far as the politics and history of Libya are concerned, a campaign against Gadaffi led mainly by American military forces, and a campaign against him led by Libyan dissidents and defectors, are two very different things.

    This observation should be particularly in the front of one’s mind in the aftermath of the “democratization” of Iraq.

  5. I think this gets a lot wrong.
    I wish Obama supported the Euros leading the mission in a stronger fashion. But why must America be central here and not a support player. Just because of our history and strength? France has a long history of intervening in Africa, Britain and France have the will, personnel, and logistics to handle this without the US.

    But the idea that soldiers in harm’s way equates to morality or seriousness is misguided as well. Maybe the American presence would engender distrust and blowback. Maybe a low-key presence is better. I’m not a fan of the Obama pronouncements, but hedging can be a considered policy and not just weak dithering. We don’t want Qaddafi, but can be wary of the rebels. And putting troops on the ground equates to a strong backing of the rebels. Which we might not want to do now for a number of reasons. And Libyan civilians will be killed by ANY warfare, rebels, Qaddafi, Western airstrikes, Western groundtroops. That’s war.

    And then there are political considerations — Obama’s reelection, Obama not wanting to be a war prez or look like Bush 44, plus America’s appetite for more war.

    The Obama stance is bad but should be backed up by confident assertions that our Euro-allies will handle things — that Qaddafi will be removed, massacres prevented; that peace and justice will return to Libya, that hope and prosperity and a better society are definite possible outcomes worth fighting for.

  6. Dear Professor Cole,

    The following question is at the heart of discussions about the morality of the various options:

    Which option entails the least amount of death and suffering? The options are as follows:

    1) Inaction. (My preferred position)
    2) No-fly zone and neutrality. (Your preferred position)
    3) Direct support for the rebels. (Your guest’s preferred position)

    Among these, I think #2, no-fly zone plus neutrality, will be the most costly in terms of lives and suffering, for the reason that it will entail a protracted civil war. Many will die in battles on both sides, and perhaps many others will die as a result of a general state of lawlessness and insecurity (as in Iraq after 2003).

    You probably would disagree with this assessment, saying that #1 (inaction) will entail the greatest suffering. I admit that inaction would have led to the killing of many rebels who continued to fight–maybe hundreds of them–plus many civilians caught in the cross-fire, though most of the rebels would have melted into the population as they realized they could not win. So, yes, inaction would have been costly in terms of lives, but it is hard to imagine that it would be as costly as your preferred option 2. It is a fair guess that already hundreds of pro-Qaddafi fighters have been massacred through aerial bombing, and reports indicate that civilians and rebels continue to die in the civil war.

    As for your option 2, I wonder if it is not academic: while it is true that the allies and the UNSC have officially espoused this option, all the evidence shows that it is a false pretext and cover for option #3. What the allies are debating now is the extent, nature, and mechanisms of support for the rebels, not whether the allies should support them at all. That question seems to have been settled on day 1. In other words, I don’t think your “neutrality option” has ever *really* been on the table. The reason why it was never considered is probably that the allies don’t want a civil war that drags on for many months or even years, creates refugees, destroys the oil industry, creates a no-man’s land that al-Qaeda could use as haven, etc.

    The choice, then, is really between options 1 and 3.

    Option 3 has various problems other than the humanitarian one. First, it’s illegal: the use of force to overthrow the Libyan government is not permitted by international law. Second, if such aggression becomes acceptable, it will have terrible long-term consequences in other conflicts. Third, as Geoffrey Kemp has argued, Libya has shown that a country cannot gain security & integration by giving up its nuclear industry. If Libya had nuclear arms, it would not have fallen victim to foreign aggression. North Korea is taking notes. Fourth, for Muslim and Arab populations, the specter of the West, in a coalition in which Arab **dictators** play a symbolic supportive role, attacking yet another a Muslim country has all the resonances that I need not rehash. It won’t help the image of the West.

  7. Sorry- we played our cards in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can blame Bush/Cheney for keeping this option completely off the table in Libya. I’m not agreeing it would be the right thing, just pointing out why it’s politically not an option.

  8. Sounds familiar. Think of Korea and MacArthur’s thought of using the atom bomb, Curtis LeMay and let’s nuke ‘em and end all this Cold War nonsense, Vietnam and we lost because we were not really committed, Iraq in 1990 and why didn’t we go on to Baghdad and I’m sure some have suggested really getting in an doing the job in Afghanistan. And now, the Westbrook’s get their say because things are just not working out the way we planned. We just need to do more, kill more, destroy more, and create more misery in the name of doing good. Why is the next step never to take our foot off the petal and say let’s try a little less and something a little different. Let’s talk to Ghadafi and those around him. Is he really more crazed than the last Bush? Or Ghadafi two years ago?

  9. “We” seem to be ignoring our own tawdry history of failed regime change over the last 50+ years … most folks have enough sense of some sort “national identity” to recognized and resent “outsiders” taking the reins…

    Apparently Mr. Heftar (recently of Virginia, USA) didn’t play (sufficiently) well with others:

    Making matters worse, the men could hardly stand one another. They included Khalifa Heftar, a former general who returned recently from exile in the United States and appointed himself as the rebel field commander, the movement’s leaders said, and Omar el-Hariri, a former political prisoner who occupied the largely ceremonial role of defense minister.

    “They behaved like children,” said Fathi Baja, a political science professor who heads the rebel political committee.

    Little was accomplished in the meetings, the participants said. When they concluded late last week, Mr. Younes was still the head of the army and Mr. Hariri remained as the defense minister. Only Mr. Heftar, who reportedly refused to work with Mr. Younes, was forced out. On Sunday, though, in a sign that divisions persisted, Mr. Heftar’s son said his father was still an army leader.

    The “no boots on the ground” is merely for appearances … see also our “secret” war in Pakistan (where there are similarly few but substantial and growing “boots” — contractor) and our “secret” drone program (where boots are largely unnecessary except possibly for delineating “targets”) … I have no idea if these “light footprint” efforts are somehow cheapers. I doubt that’s to be assumed.

    The European socioeconomic self-interests needs to be teased and explored a bit. The “Libyan rebels are racists” meme is still being repeated blindly, along with fears of “Al-Qa’ida” and “sharia” … as always, so much depends on who is controlling the dictionary, in charge of which “definition” is being used.

    I’m not sure if the offer by Qadaffi’s sons amounts of a hill of beans or is just more vamping, playing for time …

    Given Obama’s self-interest in a second term, I’m guessing that once again “principals” (whatever those might be said to be) will lose out to fairly rapid “pragmatism” (and avoiding more humiliation in the military arena) …

    stay tuned.

    nyt link: link to nytimes.com

  10. I do not know what is moral about leaving the ‘dying’ to
    soldiers mostly recruited from poor neighborhoods, and forgotten
    rural areas. Where’s the national sacrifice in this?

  11. I am inherently suspicious of all-or-nothing arguments like the one offered here.

    Just because you don’t tear down every building on the block, doesn’t mean you are insufficiently serious about urban redevelopment.

    You choose a pencil instead of a pen because of the need at hand, not because you are more or less serious about your drawing. It is a choice of media. Seriousness actually has nothing to do with it.

    So I thought I’d offer up a more useful rule of thumb: The United States’ foreign policy toolkit can hold more than two things. Indifference and total war cannot and should not be our only options.

    Limited war may work in Libya, or it may not. But it is an option that should be available to us.

    • I agree strongly that the lack of an array of options was and remains “fishy” …

      however, it appears that job #1 wrt to gaining American public support whether in some larger reality — in view of our two other major wars in progress and overstretched military and budget deficit, etc. — or — as may well be the case wrt getting the U.S. military to sign-on with the plan) having no boots on the ground was widely reported as “critical” and “proof” that we were NOT entering a third (likely) protracted war — look ma, no hands! (see also Pakistan).

      • Actually, my impression is that vast numbers of younger Americans cannot imagine a situation in which it would be appropriate/”necessary” for them (or their children) to don uniforms and fight … apparently that’s what 40 years without a draft and with endlessly more sophisticated “look ma, no hands” weaponry has brought.

        I do not want to think of the savagry those people might condone to keep their children off the battlefield… while I suspect the idea that a draft “could” be reinstated would be met with endless legal challenges and possibly violence in the streets. How quaint, the idea that citizens might be legally required to serve in the military, how last century!

  12. Ivory Coast is the nearest comparisons. For a variety of reasons powers that be had enough of a certain Gbagbo, President of Ivory Coast. Gbagbo is basically Christiano-fascist, his political movement tried to disenfranchise people from the northern part of the country, mostly Muslim, as alleged (or true?) illegal immigrants. In due time that lead to a civil war and de-facto partition.

    Next, the military-diplomatic consensus, AU and France, put some boots on the ground to SEPARATE the sides in the civil war. Shooting, rarely, if disobeyed.

    Next, in a brokered compromise, there were nationwide elections in the divided country for the President.

    Next, cronies of Gbagbo in the election commission invalidated votes from two northern provinces, upon which Gbagbo duly won. BUT! AU, France and UN did not recognize that. Thus a Ouattara became President-Elect. And living somewhat safely, under protection of foreign troops, in Abidjan, while in another part of town Gbagbo occupied Presidential palace and his residence.

    Next country, IN SPITE OF FOREIGN PEACEKEEPERS, started to “slide into a civil war”. Basically, northerners had all signs of getting more money and weapons, and Gbagbo southerners, less.

    After of couple of months, the northern thugs moved onto southern thugs, and quite a few of innocent people were killed so far.

    Why am telling this longish (unfinished) story? Because all this stuff could be done more consistently. Either the principle of national souvereignity reigns, and if Gbagbo can eliminate challenges to his power, kudos to him. To the victor etc. Or the principle does not hold on the account of the moral iniquity of the ruler — then we should remove him if we are serious. As it is, there was a protracted civil war, although kept surprisingly civil until recently, with the current bloody resolution.

    I think that the “messy middle solution” is actually superior. The principle of national souvereignity can go down the drain when the government looses control over a major part of the territory. Would Libyan military stay intact and made short work of the rebel, there would be some duly voted condemnation and that would be it. But they did not, and amazing ineffective rebels actually took over most of the country.

    Given that, it was very hard politically to do nothing at all. But should foreign boots on the ground go through the mess of sorting the good from the bad, killing and destroying for the good cause? Libyan are a mess, but given that, would we do anything better? The track record of “boots on the ground” is abysmal.

  13. Several comments have more or less expressed this thought, but each has principally made another (equally worthwhile) point, so I’ll express the thought here. I seriously doubt it will make it past Dr. Cole’s thick red editing pencil, but it’s been fun writing it nonetheless (as this remark undoubtedly indicates, I’ve written this sentence after finishing the comment).

    I doubt any of us would dispute that the US simply can’t afford to intervene in every foreign dispute merely because we conclude that doing so probably would save lives. Indeed, if God told us that we could certainly save, say, 500 lives by intervening in another foreign war but that we’d certainly lose, say, 450 American soldiers’ lives and $20 billion in the process, I’m confident we’d say “Gosh, we’d like to help, but no thanks.”

    Any disagreement on that?

    If not, then I think we all should frankly admit that we don’t just intervene on humanitarian grounds. We still run the cost-benefit analyses. We figure out first how much it will cost us in blood and treasure – exactly as any sane and rational human being would do. And, frankly, the drawing of a line short of “boots on the ground” means to me that we’re not really willing to commit much in the way of “blood” to act on our humanitarian impulses.

    But here’s where the analysis falls short in the Libya War. If we tote up the American blood and treasure on the “cost” side, presumably we are also toting up the “saved Libyan lives” on the “benefit” side. Presumably there is no disagreement on that.

    Are we toting up those “saved Libyan lives” with the same careful scrutiny we devote to toting up the blood-and-treasure costs? Far from it, in my view. Some of us feel that the numbers we plug into our cost-benefit analysis for “saved Libyan lives” may appropriately be based on whatever numbers we happen to receive from the Libyan rebels – rebels who tell us in one breath that 8,000 civilians have already been killed, and in the next breath that they’ve recaptured Sirte when they’re in fact 100 miles away (among many other misstatements).

    Others of us (I’m one of them) say this: Before the US spends “blood and treasure” to support a bunch of people we’ve never heard of, in a country that – let’s face it – none of has given a damn about before all of this hullabaloo arose, the beneficiaries of our blood and treasure – the lives of our sons and daughters – ought to show us some actual evidence that what they’re claiming is in fact happening – not merely that they think it would be very useful to them if we were to expend some dollars, sons, daughters and weapons on their behalf. Not just “eye-witness reports,” but actual photos and videos. If thousands of people really have died, certainly there must be pictures, videos, killing fields. I’ve looked very hard, and have yet to find any – not to mention enough that I’d consider sending my son or daughter to die.

    In short, my message to the Libyan rebels is this: We Americans are very nice people, with strong humanitarian impulses. We’d like to help, but show us first why we should risk the lives of our children for you.

  14. Well, Canadians aren’t fooled about whose war it is, even though one of our guys has been named as the figurehead commander.

  15. To get some background on the Bradley Manning flap, I was watching The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) last weekend, and I was struck by an audio clip of Richard Nixon, urging Henry Kissinger to think outside the box and support a plan to nuke Hanoi.

  16. Thank you for your comments. A few points of clarification might be helpful.

    Law/politics. The Security Council, and NATO (especially when not acting under Article 5) are intensely political. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but we must ask what kind of politics? That is, law and politics should not be understood as opposed here — the law is an expression of politics. One of my problems with the “legal” argument here is that the law is law we worked very hard to make. So did we make the right law?

    Limited/total war. To repeat, this piece takes no stance on whether the intervention was a good idea, indeed suggests the question was close. I certainly does not argue that the US must choose between not fighting, and total war — I in fact say that defending a defined territory (creating a haven) was a plausible option. And at least this afternoon, it looks like we may end up there yet — unwilling to force regime change, and unwilling to let Qaddafi retake ground.

    Temptation. Power presents the temptation to use it, which I believe must be confronted seriously. Sometimes this is done for humanitarian reasons, sometimes for less than noble reasons. But whatever the motivation, it is very easy for the US to project small amounts of force. There are often adverse consequences of such adventures. Sometimes, we get bogged down (Vietnam), or withdraw awkwardly (Somalia, Libya), or suffer serious blowback (Afghanistan). Sometimes we engage in behavior of which we are not proud and cover up, but for which we are blamed, anyway (Pakistan, Nicaragua).

    But my real argument is that how we fight is important, both existentially (who we conceive ourselves to be), and as a matter of global politics, who we are in the world. Beyond the adverse consequences — and there are always going to be some — I believe it is simply wrong to exercise force, get people killed, without serious commitment to one’s cause. So the idea of committing troops — as opposed to fighting in secret and without much in the way of domestic political authorization (see Nicaragua, Pakistan, and to worrisome extent, Yemen and now Libya) is that it forces the nation to take a hard look at what it is doing. It’s just too easy to declare a no fly zone, fire a few cruise missiles, maybe use some drones — to kill at a distance.

    I do not mean that we should never, ever, fight unless we deploy infantry. What I am suggesting is merely a “rule of thumb,” a gut check, the geo-strategic equivalent of the old “is this something you could tell your mother,” or the email “is this something you wouldn’t mind seeing printed in the times.”

    Does committing troops, or more generally, the seriousness for which I am arguing, suffice to make war moral? Of course not. Nor does it address the inequalities — of class, age, and one might still add gender — that beset war. But it is difficult to argue for the worthiness of a war that is prosecuted by those who do not admit that they are fighting. And all too often, the US fights covertly.

    In fairness to the administration, in order to make my more fundamental point about the temptations of US power, I’ve overstated the case: Obama has taken considerable responsibility here. It must also be admitted that Libya, like Iraq in the first Gulf War, is especially suited for air power. But none of that changes the fact that the nation has undertaken, in the company of others perhaps, another war.

    My political friends remind me that even calling this a war, much less pushing to put troops on the ground, is tantamount to not intervening. That may be true, but if that is true, if the nation is willing to abide what history brings to Libya rather than put “blood and treasure” on the line, then the administration should not have intervened. (Again, I’ll reserve for another day the question of domestic political process — my sense is that it was legal but insufficient.)

    Arguments about how the US might conceive of security policy in the current environment are developed with much greater care in my book, Deploying Ourselves: Islamist Violence and the Responsible (!) Projection of US Force. See:
    link to law.buffalo.edu

    • My main objection to “boots on the ground” is competence, which you have not addressed above. If the US had a large population of soldiers who spoke Arabic, an officer corps prepared to cooperate with and take orders from the local Transitional Government, etc., I could see the US doing such an intervention.

      Do we? I doubt it.

      The question of *ability* is prominent. I would argue that a large number of the “limited wars” were started by people who knew for a fact that they couldn’t execute full-scale wars. (Often they arguably couldn’t competently execute limited wars either, but they thought they could — this is probably an argument for shrinking the military to the point where it’s not a temptation.)

  17. I am surprised that Westbrook’s essay and the initial 18 comments do not address the matter of American law, the U.N. Charter, or the Security Council’s Resolution 1973.

    Westbrook characterizes the situation when he writes: “The fact that multilateral institutions, namely the United Nations, NATO, and the Arab League, have approved of at least some of our action does not alter the basic facts that US personnel, using US assets, are committed to foreign combat. Again, this is our war, and while having allies is important, and getting the good housekeeping seal of approval for such violence from international institutions is generally preferable…” [and he continues in this vein]

    I submit that this is not “our” war and really is a United Nations action. I say this because when we ratified the U.N Charter in 1945 that treaty gained the force of federal law of the United States. That U.N. Charter obliges us to give the U.N. Security Council “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” and commits us to an agreement that, “the Security Council acts on [our] behalf,” so, if article VI, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution (Supremacy Clause) still means anything, and we haven’t withdrawn from the U.N. or renounced our ratification of the U.N. Charter, this is clearly not “our” war. It is a United Nations action. That makes it our war because we are a member state of the United Nations. This is the appropriate (legal) way to frame the situation.

    To directly commit military forces without authorization from the United Nations would have been, I suppose, a breach of the United Nations charter. I do not think any countries were seriously considering committing and applying military force to the Libyan crisis without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council (there are many lawyers in the governments of the member states and their diplomatic corps). Framed from this point of view, in which the United Nations Charter is a meaningful treaty with force of law, I think it incorrect to frame this as our having sought “approval” from the U.N. to conduct a military action in Libya. Rather, a significant number of U.N. member states, led, I believe, by Lebanon, introduced a resolution allowing member states to get involved, and encouraging such involvement. It was permission and authorization, not approval, that was requested and granted. The Security Council has resolved that the situation in Libya was a threat to peace, and authorized “member states” to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. This conflict, like the Korean conflict that began in 1950 (see Resolution 84 adopted by the Security Council on July 7, 1950) is a United Nations effort.

    And Resolution 1973 clearly and explicitly excludes “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” So, while the so-called “half-measure” is a U.N. action, putting soldiers on the ground would, under current international law, be a violation of the U.N. Charter, and thus unlawful under American law.

    We could introduce a resolution in the United Nations seeking authorization for such action, with an invasion of perhaps a couple dozen member states coming into the scene to remove the Tripoli regime. I personally wouldn’t mind living in a world in which a strong U.N. Security Council routinely voted to demand all member nations work in concert to reduce particularly nasty governments to utter submission, and had meaningful military assistance from scores of nations, including all the majors powers, so that nasty governments would cower and quail at the threat of U.N. resolutions, rather than laugh at them, and quickly surrender to a united U.N. rather than defiantly go on their bloody business of making a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, in that sense, I think I’m in agreement with the aspirations Professor Westbrook expresses. I’m just calling attention to the legal constraints that must be observed in American foreign policy, because treaties (and the United Nations Charter I take to be such a treaty) do have the force of law.

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