On September 30 2011, Dr. David Gibbs, Professor of History and Government at the University of Arizona, gave an important talk as part of the Fall Colloquium Series sponsored by the School of Middle East and North African Studies at UA. His talk, entitled “Western Intervention in Libya and the Responsibility to Protect” focused on international interventions based on humanitarian grounds. Using the intervention in Libya as a case study, he focused on the idea of R2P – the responsibility to protect. Gibbs asserted that it’s easy to argue in favor of intervention, but there is very little room for accountability if things go wrong, and a bad situation is made worse. He also suggested that those who call for such interventions are making an argument for war not peace. He said this needs to be more explicitly recognized because war has an enormous capacity to destroy. Often, intervention can intensify conflicts, particularly ethnic conflicts. This was perhaps the most salient point he made during his talk, that we need to be more honest about the motivations behind humanitarian interventions, but more importantly about the potential consequences and the possibility that human lives will be devastated and destroyed to a worse degree with intervention.
Gibbs used the appropriate examples of Iraq and Afghanistan to highlight the problematic nature of the humanitarian arguments used to justify both invasions. Obviously, things didn’t go so well in either place, and we are still dealing with the sour fruits of both interventions. Thus Gibbs posed the question, “What do you say when you contribute to supporting interventions that lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people who wouldn’t have died otherwise without the intervention?” Are expressions of remorse enough? He reiterated, again, that the issue of accountability needs to be taken very seriously when choosing to intervene. However, he also acknowledged the counter argument: what if you argue against intervention and genocide occurs?
Such was the case in Rwanda. Yet there is a stark difference between Iraq and Afghanistan on the one hand, and Rwanda on the other. Rwanda was a clear case of genocide where intervention could have made a difference. Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of choice, and the humanitarian arguments for both invasions were bogus, even if there were legitimate humanitarian issues to be concerned with. Thus, the arguments for intervention are ripe with hypocrisy. When Saddam Hussein was slaughtering Iraqi’s, the U.S. hung those he was slaughtering out to dry. There was no intervention based on humanitarian grounds then. Thus interventions should be seen for what they usually are, the pursuit of a state’s own interests when it suits them, and not a minute before it suits them.
In terms of Libya, Gibbs said it’s unclear what the outcome will be, but there is very little in Libya’s history to suggest a democratic outcome in the short-term. He also said there doesn’t seem to be high probability for even a stable situation to emerge, nor for unity due to the historical divisions between Benghazi and Tripoli, and clan divisions. He argued that a somewhat benign regime could emerge like the Maliki government in Iraq. However, he said the most likely outcome will be some form of instability and civil war, and he drew parallels to Iraq under Hussein and Afghanistan under Taliban. In other words, you take out a country’s leader and it descends into civil war. He also drew a parallel to Somalia, which he said is the closest parallel. In Somalia you have a clan-based society that was ruled by a dictator, who was overthrown in 1991. What Somalia ended up with as a result is a civil war that lasts until today. Gibbs seemed to be arguing that we should pay attention to and learn from these historical examples, and not get caught up in the fleeting moment of moral uplift that the idea of intervention can bring. We need to remain grounded in reality.
Gibbs also argued that there are a combination of factors at play behind the arguments for intervention in Libya, and intervention in general. One of the primary motivations he mentioned was weapon sales. He said both France and Britain have fighter planes they are trying to showcase and sell. Additionally, the British economy has suffered enormous budget cuts, including military spending. Apparently, Britain now has no naval aircraft. Gibbs said there was widespread talk in the British press that such budget cuts were a mistake. Thus, he argued that perhaps showcasing new British weaponry is seen as a way to ameliorate this situation. This fits with the theory that states intervene in pursuit of their own interests, not for truly humanitarian purposes.
Gibbs also asserted that there was a strong incentive to intervene in the international business community. Moreover, the Arab Spring brought to light the dreaded possibility of instability in the Gulf. Thus, the West felt a need to demonstrate that it is not impotent and is not going to lose control; it can still exert military force as it could in the old days. Not ironically, the intervention in Libya is being led by the old and current colonial powers. And of course, there is the oil factor.
His conclusions focused on the setbacks for international law and the idea of sovereignty. He also mentioned the fact that Obama did not get Congressional approval for this intervention, but that if it is successful he will use it in 2012 to get reelected, as will Nicolas Sarkozy. This will set a precedent that intervention is a good thing, and it will be portrayed as a good thing until we see the Iraq-like effects. He also warned that we should not think of the intervention in Libya as a short-term engagement; it could be long term, possibly with ground forces.
Please see a recent article in Counterpunch by Gibbs entitle, “Power Politics, NATO, and the Libyan Intervention.”