Why Libya is that Rare Instance in Which Liberals Should Support Armed Intervention

Here in Bangladesh, news of the intervention in Libya is dominated by tales of the tens of thousands of Bangladeshi migrant workers who fled the violence to a refugee camp in Tunisia. It has been hard to follow the debate back home, but I do get a sense from various list serves and Twitter that progressives are lining up to oppose the military intervention in Libya.   If so, that would be a big disappointment.

I count myself as a progressive. I am also not much of a liberal hawk. I opposed the Iraq war and believe that the United States should exit from Afghanistan as soon as possible. But Libya is different –very different.    In fact, I would say that it is one of the most important tests for the application of progressive values and principles in foreign policy in a very long time.

First, the intervention was intended to avert an incipient humanitarian crisis.  One week ago today, Qaddafi’s forces looked poised to sack the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.  Qaddafi and his son both issued edicts calling for the massacre of civilians. I remain convinced that if the city fell to Qaddafi loyalists, several thousand people would have been slaughtered.

Second, the Security Council approved this measure and in the final resolution, it specifically called for the protection of civilians at Benghazi and elsewhere.   These are not merely technicalities.   Rather, it confers legal legitimacy to the enforcement of international humanitarian law, which prohibits the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants.

Third, the use of force was a last resort.  In the week prior to the intervention, the Security Council issued one warning to Qaddafi in the form of Security Council “presidential statement”; when that warning went unheeded, the Council unanimously approved individual targeted sanctions on Qaddafi’s inner circle and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court.  Only after those measures failed to compel Qaddafi into pulling back his forces from Benghazi did the council authorize the use of force.

The liberal project in foreign policy is to replace the rule of force with the rule of law.  It’s a utopian ideal, but we created institutions like the UN, the Security Council, international war crimes tribunals, and principles like the Responsibility to Protect to take humanity closer to the point where law trumps power.

Qaddafi and his forces were flaunting prohibitions in international law against targeting civilians. To be sure, the enforcement international humanitarian law has been inconsistently applied over the years. But that does not mean that it should not be enforced when warranted — and it does not mean that only guns and bombs can or should enforce it.  But bombs and guns can be used as a last resort when there is reason to believe that the gross violations of international humanitarian law are imminent and when the Security Council approves.

Those conditions were satisfied.  If we want to live in a world in which the rule of law becomes supreme to the rule of the jungle, we have to accept that sometimes enforcing international humanitarian law will require the use of force.