Does Intervention Need an Intervention?

Scholars and Policymakers Ponder Military Force in Libya

Mark Juergensmeyer
Paul Wellman

On March 17, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, allowing member states to engage in military actions to stop the Libyan government from killing its own citizens. Soon after, the U.S., Britain, and France began bombing Libyan air defense installations and other military targets in order to enforce a no-fly zone. As the United States entered the fifth day of its third concurrent military campaign in the Middle East, local pundits are left straddling the fence on whether the United Nations Security Council and President Barack Obama made the right call.

Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar, director of the Middle East and Global Studies departments at SBCC, said he is “happy that the people of Libya are spared the military machine and torture machine of [Colonel Mu’ammar al-]Qadhafi … The slaughter of Benghazi [the rebel-held city in eastern Libya] would have been epic,” he said. At the same time, he worries about the political, military, and moral implications of an armed intervention. “War is never a neat affair,” said Eskandari, and now that the U.S. has begun bombing in Libya, it is unclear how and when the country will extricate itself from Libyan affairs, who will control Libya’s oil, and how America will decide when and where to intervene in the future, he explained.

On that last point of timing, Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at UCSB, answered, “when large numbers of lives are at stake.” Juergensmeyer, who supports intervention in Libya, added that moral imperative must be matched by political consensus. Libya differs from other conflicts in which citizens of Middle Eastern nations are protesting against repressive regimes, he said, because both the U.N. and Arab League have called for action. Unlike the “sham coalition” George W. Bush cobbled together to leverage the U.S.’s entrance into a war with Iraq, Juergensmeyer said, this one is real.

Lois Capps
Paul Wellman (file)

Proponents of the no-fly zone in Libya stressed that it is an international effort that the U.S is participating in, but not leading. Rep. Lois Capps said, “The tipping point came when the Arab nations agreed and asked that we and the U.N. enter into the no-fly zone.” Capps said that she hopes our efforts in Libya are brief, limited, and buttressed by Arab nations in the region. Although Capps believes that Qadhafi should be removed from power, she does not feel that it is up to the U.S. or other foreign powers to remove him. (Nor do they have the authority to, according to the U.N. resolution.) “This is about protecting civilian lives. Regime change needs to come from the people,” said Capps. Rep. Elton Gallegly, who represents portions of Santa Barbara County, did not respond to requests for comment.

Eskandari sounded skeptical about the brevity of a no-fly zone, noting that the no-fly zone in Iraq lasted for 10 years before the Iraq War. He also said that as the dominant military power, the U.S. will play a leading role in any military action.

President Obama’s commitment to the no-fly zone has belied traditional political alliances. Libertarian Ron Paul (R-TX) and ultra-liberal Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) have both vociferously contested military action in Libya, arguing that the president does not have the constitutional authority to engage in warfare without the consent of Congress and that the U.S. cannot afford to engage in another military conflict, especially because it is already paying for two drawn-out wars and recovering from a deep economic recession.

Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and visiting distinguished professor in Global and International Studies at UCSB since 2002, believes that Qadhafi’s removal from power would benefit the citizens of Libya, but that the U.N. does not have the authority to approve military intervention. Coauthor of a forthcoming book with Juergensmeyer titled The Legality-Legitimacy Debate in Global Affairs, Falk argues that the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya is legal but not legitimate. It ignores both the U.N. Charter, which he says gives privilege to the sovereignty of territorial states, and a history in which soft power (such as diplomacy and sanctions) have been favored over military intervention.

“If ordinary citizens were allowed to have foreign policy doctrines,” wrote Falk in his blog ( on Sunday, “mine would be this: Without high levels of confidence in a proposed course of military action, the U.N. should never agree to allow states to engage in violent action that kills people.”

Juergensmeyer believes that the U.N. has both the legal authority and legitimacy to authorize military actions that would prevent the killing of civilians. Unlike Falk, he argues that the U.N. has sanctioned military force “not in order to kill but to keep killing from happening.”

“Does this open a Pandora’s box and suggest that U.N. approval can sanction military action for other interventions around the world for the sake of human rights?” asked Juergensmeyer via email. “I hope so — I wish a similar action had been taken in Rwanda to end the genocide there between the Tutsis and the Hutus, and in Cambodia when Pol Pot was conducting his killing fields. I do think the global community has a moral responsibility to uphold human rights and the sanctity of life when it is endangered, especially on such a cruel and massive scale.”

The million-dollar question nobody can answer is this: What will be the long-term consequences of the decision to intervene? It’s uncertain whether efforts to save lives will now lead to future violence. Also uncertain is whether France and the U.S. will be patrolling Libya’s airspace for years to come or if Qadhafi will step down and negotiate a peace treaty next week. Capps, who hopes for a quick resolution but wouldn’t enter into unanswerable speculation, said, “In this life, we don’t have those guarantees, do we?”