There have many questions asked about why some NATO countries are intervening militarily to help the opposition in Libya and not in other Arab autocracies. The latest I’ve seen is from a website news and discussion website associated with the political party in Britain to which I belong, and which supports the intervention. The item focuses on disturbing news of torture of Syrian demonstrators and asks why we are not intervening militarily in that country.
It seems to me the reasons why there is intervention in Libya and not other countries, is fairly clear. This is a completely separate issue from whether the intervention is correct. Whatever view may be taken on that, it is clear why things have happened as they have. Since this does not seem to as widely understood as it could be, I’m offering some clarification.
1. The Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi does not control the whole country. Oppositions forces control and administer a significant proportion of Libyan territory. A state that does not control the whole of its territory has lost some of the reasons behind respect for national sovereignty.
2. Opposition forces are very active in fighting the existing regime around the goal of a state with pluralist democracy, genuine representative institutions, which is under law, and which protects individual rights. These gaols are in line with the general nature and principles of NATO states. Those forces have requested intervention.
3. The Arab League has given some recognition to the ideas that the Libyan state is lacking legitimacy and some form of intervention is justified. Even if the Arab League does not support the full extent of intervention, it has given legitimacy to the fact of intervention. Similar remarks apply to the UN attitude.
4. The Gaddafi regime been involved in various acts of murder and terror against citizens of the UK, France, the USA and many other countries, sometime on the soil of these countries, or in the skies over these countries.
The above are objectively founded, and those who do not support the current intervention presumably recognise their reality. If they do not I can only say they have lost touch with objectivity. It is certainly the case that the four points above could be accepted by someone opposed to the intervention. That person could oppose the intervention on the grounds of pacifism, uncertainty about the consequences of interventions, the belief that western countries should never ever intervene in a Third World country, a belief that national sovereignty exercised by an established regime can never ever be challenged from outside even when weakening in practice.
Those arguments, can be made, but I do not find them convincing. Pacifism leaves bad people with a monopoly of force. We know enough about the badness of the Gaddafi regime and the way that opposition forces have operates to have a good enough idea about the relative merits of the two sides, and the benefits of the better side winning. The idea of absolute sovereignty should not automatically overcomes all other concerns in every circumstance, and the evident weakening of sovereign weakens the applicability of that argument. There is nothing wrong with western interventionism where there are good reasons to think it will help. Examples where it has worked include Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. These countries have their problems, but they are better now than they would have been without interventions from abroad. Countries which bear the costs of intervening bear considerable, if dispersed and long term, benefits from living in a world which one less autocratic government and one more government based on law and pluralism. Oil is sometimes offered as the main reason for interventionism in Libya for those who oppose it. The intervening countries were able to buy Libyan oil before and had commercial links with Libya, so this is a weak argument. One problem with any intervention is that intervening countries are likely to claim economic and other privileges, This does not in itself show interventionism is wrong, though we should certainly act to minimise this kind of activity.
I will briefly mention some very weak arguments against interventionism which are sometimes offered by people who should know better. Sarkozy’s support for interventions was motivated by Bernard-Henri Lévy, a rather preposterous self-publicising writer and ‘thinker’. It’s unlikely that BHL was the main reason for Sarkozy’s policy. It is simply very obviously irrelevant that a major supporter of the policy is deeply irritating. Some writers and thinkers essentially argue that supporting policies of existing western governments must be based lack of radical critical intellectual spirit. This is really an argument from intellectual vanity (I must be cleverer than people who agree with the government) and at best an extension of the argument of the inherent evils of all interventionism, or all western interventionism, which I have already discussed. These people appear inclined to believe that NATO countries were already planning the fall of Gaddafi and were involved in covert actions against him. The evidence for this is very weak, but these sophisticated intellectuals are very prone to think that any tenuous association, any piece of evidence which might, or might not, be relevant is treated as final proof. In any case, if these NATO countries were involved in such covert operations, that would be highly appropriate as a form of intervention below the threshold of system and open use of high level military hardware to assist rebels.
Intervention in Syria, Bahrain, etc, would be a very good thing in my opinion, but should only reach the level of full scale military support for opposition forces when there is an organised armed opposition force requesting assistance. Given the current lack of such conditions, the best thing is to offer support to democracy activists below the level of open military intervention. Covert operations are a different matter.