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On International Intervention and the Dire Situation in Libya

[Map of Libya. Image from] [Map of Libya. Image from]

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council held a formal meeting in which they condemned the violence in Libya and threatened to hold violators of international law accountable. At the same time, the Arab League held an extraordinary session in which it suspended Libya’s membership. These measures, and others, come eight days into the Libyan people’s courage and persistence in the face of shoot-to-kill policies by police, military, and mercenary forces as well as the use of helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and other artillery to indiscriminately attack unarmed demonstrators. While this violence may have initially been intended as a strategy for maintaining power, it now appears to be the regime’s revenge for its ongoing unraveling. As credible reports of civilian death tolls mount, so too have demands on Western and Arab powers that they lend greater support to protesters, through humanitarian and other assistance.

While the Libyan regime has entered its eleventh hour in the face of ongoing popular protests and official defections (which is one reason why Western and Arab powers have begun their chorus of open condemnation), al-Qaddafi may yet retain the ability to inflict deadly violence on the Libyan people. Further, al-Qaddafi’s speech, together with that of his son, Saif al-Islam, have made clear that the regime is willing to resort to massive escalation of violence in its desperation, rather than stepping down. Against this context, calls for “international intervention” have emerged from many quarters, ranging from policy analysts and academics to progressive activists and ordinary people watching in horror as events unfold and stories of atrocities emerge.

If al-Qaddafi’s regime falls today or tomorrow, debates about intervention will be moot. But unfolding events present an interesting opportunity to engage with interventionist arguments. The very fact that calls for intervention come at the eleventh hour and rarely emerge in time to make a meaningful impact or stave off the worst of atrocities in situations of crisis is itself worth noticing. Beyond that, we offer some reflections on the merits of different interventionist scenarios in the Libyan context specifically.

In evaluating calls for intervention, the first question we might ask is how the Libyan case differs from recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, where intervention of this type was not invited. In both of those countries authoritarian leaders who were erstwhile Western allies were pushed out when their military institutions refused to turn on protesters. But situated in countries long allied with the West, the self-preservation calculation of those military institutions might have been quite different than in the Libyan case. When Ben Ali and Mubarak became focal points for opposition groups and liabilities to regime maintenance, the military leadership in each country may have had reason to believe that their institutional interests were better served by transition. The continuing role of both the Tunisian and the Egyptian military in overseeing transition speaks powerfully to this calculation. By contrast, the Libyan military, embedded in an isolated regime without strong ties to the West, may not expect as secure of an institutional trajectory in the event of a transition.

Indeed, despite various defections—including those by ministers, diplomats, military officers, and air force pilots—we have yet to see the collective decision on the part of the Libyan armed forces to champion the demands of protesters. In fact, there is little indication of whether the Libyan armed forces have the institutional capacity for disciplined collective action. These dynamics, coupled with the realities of deaths, injuries, and disappearances (reportedly occurring at a much higher rate than in either Tunisia or Egypt), add to the sense of urgency for those of us outside of Libya. On the one hand, international inaction in the face of atrocities in Libya seems unacceptable. On the other hand, the deplorable record of past international intervention inspires little confidence.

The first test of any would-be interventionist is this: do no harm. And there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test. For instance, calls for a no-fly zone by Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. (drawing on the Iraqi precedent of the 1990s) and an air campaign by others (drawing on the Kosovo precedent from 1999) would surely fail this test. Neither option would shield the Libyan civilian population from the regime’s coercive apparatus (which is not principally aerial) and both options may entail serious costs to civilians by freezing or exacerbating the situation on the ground. Beyond raising questions of enforcement (would international forces fire on Libyan aircraft?), a no-fly zone might well block one method of escape for Libyan civilians or close an avenue for defections by members of the air force, such as the four pilots that are known to have flown out and defected in disobedience of direct orders to bomb civilians. Alternatively, air strikes run the risk of serious damage to both the civilian population and infrastructure. In short, any intervention must be crafted to offer real support to the civilian population of Libya, which direct forms of coercive intervention like no-fly zones or air strikes would not. But are there other forms of intervention that would be better suited to the task? Given limited knowledge of Libya’s internal dynamics at present and the heavy-handed interventionist toolkit developed to date by the international community any such option must be approached with caution.

Coercive options should be taken off the table. Absent the political will to commit ground forces to serve as a meaningful buffer between the regime and the population, any coercive intervention will do more damage (particularly to civilians) than good. Further, even if the political will existed for forceful intervention to offer direct protection to Libyan civilians, history suggests that the ultimate outcome of such intervention would still be harmful. Aside from the obvious potential threats to the civilian populations from the presence of foreign troops on their soil, including risks from a ground conflict and risks associated with the possibility of a prolonged presence, there are additional considerations that weigh against such intervention. At a time when the regime appears to be crumbling from within, as a result of the courageous mobilization of its own people, to engage in an eleventh hour intervention runs the very serious risk of depriving the Libyan people of their control over the hard-won transition they have initiated. To rebrand the Libyan uprising with the last minute trappings of international liberation (read: “Made in the West”) would do a serious disservice to the achievements of the protesters. Of course, none of this is to absolve the international community of its obligation to support Libyan civilians. Rather, we seek to identify a principled course of action that speaks to the dire situation, our responsibilities towards it, and the power relations that frame it.

In the immediate context, the most appropriate role for the international community is in providing humanitarian assistance and desisting from any further support to the regime. In addition to condemning the regime’s resort to violence, there are at least five modalities for the provision of such assistance, all of which should be employed immediately, with the support of the Security Council. First, all borders should be opened and appropriate facilities created to allow Libyan civilians to flee regime violence. If various governments are going to create exit routes through charter flights and land crossings for their own citizens, they also need to create a mechanism for Libyans to get out. Second, all available means for providing direct humanitarian assistance on the ground to the Libyan population should be utilized, including aid convoys to eastern Libya through Egypt and to western Libya through Tunisia. Third, al-Qaddafi’s assets and those of remaining elements of the regime should be frozen and kept in safe keeping to be given to whatever post-Qaddafi system emerges. Fourth, governments with ties to Libya should immediately sever all military ties, withholding delivery of materiel and cancelling all outstanding contracts. Finally, an arms embargo should be imposed preventing the sale or delivery of military equipment or personnel (including foreign mercenaries) to the Libyan state security forces. Sanctions that target military materiel, services and the movement of reinforcements from among foreign mercenaries are essential. Sanctions that go beyond these aims would run the risk of causing more harm to civilians than to the regime.

Beyond these measures, several other recent suggestions for intervention – ranging from direct coercion to demands for immediate international criminal accountability – raise a number of troubling implications that should give pause to those acting in solidarity with the Libyan people. Returning to our earlier consideration of what distinguishes the Libyan case from those of Tunisia and Egypt, it is important to underscore the international context when considering outside intervention. Tunisia and Egypt were both regimes with strong ties to the West and central to the regional order. The Libyan regime’s position is at best isolated and at worst adversarial with respect to the West. The difference this makes in the risk calculations of the regime and the dangers associated with calls for intervention is significant. Intervention in support of regime change in Libya presents the West with a window of opportunity to shape the transition of a relatively oil-rich North African country, potentially replacing an irritant with a new client. Where the emphasis of Western interests in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases has been on stability, in the Libyan case the goals will likely be rapid transformation. For instance, in a post-transition Libya, individuals with ties to the West or experience with energy markets might emerge as favored interlocutors, identified with international approval as “moderate” and “appropriate.” To invite forceful international intervention in the last days of the current regime might empower external interveners to make such choices, potentially at the expense of the preferences of the Libyan people. Particularly in light of how little is known about the current political dynamics among opposition groups within Libya, international intervention may entail a particularly high risk that the narrative framing of events will be captured by external actors in ways that are adverse to local Libyan choices.

Even more troubling, however, are the implications for regime risk calculations associated with the differential international position of the Libyan state as compared to Tunisia and Egypt. As we have seen, despite clear evidence that the regime has lost its grip on power as a result of the scale of the popular mobilization and defections, al-Qaddafi appears to be upping the ante rhetorically and in practice with escalations of violence. The likelihood that he will continue to raise the stakes is a real one that turns on two factors. The first is al-Qaddafi’s continued control of at least a proportion of his security forces, including parts of the military. The second is the absence of alternatives to a desperate bid to retain power through force. There is little that international actors can do to influence the first factor other than make clear that anyone who commits acts of violence against civilians, whether or not under orders, will be investigated and held liable under standards of international accountability. International measures designed to influence those within the chain of command of the military or security forces to switch sides and support the demonstrators are certainly legitimate. In practice, however, internal dynamics are far likelier to impact these immediate calculations than threats of future prosecution. There is, however, a chance to influence the second factor more decisively.

What differentiates al-Qaddafi from Ben Ali and Mubarak is the degree to which the latter two were entrenched in regional and international alliances with Arab leaders and Western powers. By contrast, Qaddafi is an isolated—if not adversarial—anomaly. Further, this Libyan regime is well-acquainted with international measures such as sanctions and threats of prosecution based on prior experience in the context of Lockerbie. Outside of Sudan, few leaders in the region are likely to have as keen an appreciation of the prospects of imprisonment, prosecution, and sentencing by an international court as al-Qaddafi. In fact, this scenario is quite plausible should al-Qaddafi physically survive the end of his regime, since he would offer the international community an excellent opportunity to symbolically stand with protesters across the region at low cost. Whereas meaningful accountability for deposed former Western allies might prove embarrassing, the prosecution of al-Qaddafi would vindicate calls for international justice without similar risks. Unlike the final indignity of a forced but comfortable resignation in Egypt and Tunisia, al-Qaddafi might well appreciate that his final days will more closely resemble those of the deposed Iraqi dictator made to stand trial. The prospect of retirement in a prison cell in the Hague may factor into al-Qaddafi’s incentives to make good on his threats to fight to the last of his capacities, visiting untold atrocities on Libyan civilians in the process. Paradoxically, then, providing al-Qaddafi with an immediate exit strategy to a safe haven might be the right choice from a humanitarian perspective. Shifting the regime’s incentives by offering an option that is neither death nor prosecution may well be the most humanitarian of presently available options for international intervention. Working with Venezuela, neighboring countries or others that would be willing to provide safe passage to Qaddafi would be far preferable than the apocalyptic endgame that the regime might otherwise pursue for lack of alternatives. The missed opportunity to pursue immediate prosecution pales in comparison to the death and destruction that might be avoided by shifting the regime’s risk calculation in this way. Moreover, little is lost by pursuing an immediate exit strategy today while leaving open the possibility of international criminal accountability down the line. In truth, international prosecutions take significant time and resources and do not represent an immediate alternative regardless. Threatening al-Qaddafi with war crimes prosecutions today may create perverse incentives with little strategic benefit. Securing him an exit option now may have the strategic benefit of sparing the Libyan people the violent death throes of their doomed regime.

We thus return to our original do-no-harm principle. We neither advocate abandoning the Libyan people to the violence of the regime nor protecting al-Qaddafi from accountability. But as calls for international intervention grow, we must worry about the risk of counter-productive results for Libyans on the ground of some of the options being considered. A combined strategy of humanitarian assistance, severing existing military ties with the regime, and generating exit options for al-Qaddafi and his family may well be the best course for accomplishing the goal of supporting Libya’s civilian population. An exit strategy for al-Qaddafi in the short-term does not foreclose the possibility of accountability thereafter. While this course may seem less satisfying in terms of an immediate answer to calls for international justice, a grounded understanding of the humanitarian costs of other strategies of intervention should counsel against appeasing our (international) conscience at the expense of the lives of those we purport to save. If al-Qaddafi retains the capacity to do harm to his people, the priority must be to take whatever measures will most quickly address that threat. Of course, if today’s defections bring the regime down then the belated calls for intervention will be moot in the Libyan case. Nonetheless, careful consideration of what constitutes legitimate intervention will remain pertinent as similar calls may yet emerge with respect to the many other tottering regimes in the region and beyond.

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11 comments for "On International Intervention and the Dire Situation in Libya"


Two thoughts: US reconnaissance drones could be sent over the country to gather information/pictures, and to defuse the news vacuum as strategy, as a means in part to continue the sense of international solidarity that kept the protests going in Egypt.

Also, just as an idea, would dropping leaflets, as in WW2 propaganda, be a potentially useful strategy?

modefier wrote on February 23, 2011 at 03:40 PM

Yap. The US can use its drones to provide pictures and other info on the brutality of the Gaddafi regime as well as military and other terroristic maneuvers against the protesters. But i doubt the US will do this if it does not see any benefit in this undertaking. US is not a charitable institution, anyway.

LLuis Maria Martinez wrote on February 24, 2011 at 04:25 AM

@modefier: Thanks for reading. I don't think grassroots solidarity was ever a problem in terms of understanding the nature of the Libyan popular uprising and the regime's violent response. Like the situation with Egypt, the delayed response of international actors is a function of hedging their bets and fear of setting a precedent rather than a lack of information. The suggestion of dropping leaflets is puzzling. Why should we think Libyans need to be told anything through leaflets? If anything, we might want to commission Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans to drop leaflets on the US to teach Americans about U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa as well as what democracy looks like in practice.

Ziad wrote on February 24, 2011 at 09:22 AM

@LLuis Maria Martinez

If US is not charity organization. Then what they are doing in Afghanistan, Iraq,Egypt,S. Arabia, Indonesia Guatemala, Columbia etc....(list is too long). Please, don't take it personal. Just wondering!

KK wrote on February 25, 2011 at 01:24 AM

What about arming the rebels, and providing communications equipment, intelligence, logistical coordination and so forth?

eatbees wrote on February 25, 2011 at 08:48 AM


US is indeed not a charity organization...the reason they are in the countries you mentioned is the same reason they are dragging their feed on defending the citizens of Libya...they have something to gain from being there.

Pat wrote on February 25, 2011 at 01:11 PM

Stop blaming America for all the woes of the world! We are blamed if we assist ad if we do not. Isreal has had more sanctions alone than all arab countires put together sense the inception of the U.N.Which by the way has always been useless in the long run. The U.N should have taken the measures that this articles is discussing,and implemented them already!

Sadezoe wrote on February 25, 2011 at 04:12 PM

@modefier @LLuis @KK @eatbees: Thank you all for reading. There is no need to send drones, arm rebels, or provide any type of military logistical support. We simply do not know enough about the internal dynamics to be "empowering" particular groups either as "acceptable" representatives of the Libyan people or as the appropriate parties to engage in an attempt to wrest control from al-Qaddafi. These strategic choices can only emerge from among the Libyan people engaging in this struggle. Furthermore, such "empowerment" is always subject to the logic of the interests of intervening powers. We have no reason to expect an alignment between the interests of external interveners and those of Libyans on the ground and, as history has shown, external intervention almost always results in more harm than good. Equally important, such intervention is unlikely to materially alter the balance on the ground, which Libyans themselves have tilted in their favor at great cost and without any external support, moral or material. All indications are that al-Qaddafi appears to be in his final days and his control has been reduced to a very small part of western Libya. Indeed, this may well be why certain powers are now willing to contemplate an eleventh hour low-cost intervention to seek, after the fact, to shape outcomes they had no part in producing. Activities such as those that you suggest (and many related ones) would primarily offer intervening powers a chance to advance their own interests, likely at a high cost to the Libyan people (both in terms of deaths, injuries, and disappearances already incurred as well as the usual short and long-term costs associated with foreign intervention). The Libyan people have amply demonstrated the desire and the capacity to finish what they started and paid dearly for. I think we are quite clear that we believe that the best thing to do, on the basis of the do-no-harm principle (i.e., no more harm than is already being done), is to cease any existing interventions (movement of military goods and personnel; closing of borders) and provide humanitarian assistance where local demands for medical supplies or emergency food assistance warrant it (notwithstanding some of the problematic dynamics also associated with such forms of “aid”). An exemplary local model of such assistance has been the first aid supplies that have been organized and delivered through Facebook campaigns among ordinary Egyptians, acting not as third party interveners but in transnational solidarity with the struggle of their Libyan counterparts. If the welfare of the Libyan people is central to our concerns, we need to abandon the arrogant assumption that WE have a crucial role to play in THEIR struggle. Being responsive to calls from among Libyans on the ground, who wish to see al-Qaddafi and his regime isolated, is one thing. Substituting international agency for local aspirations and demands is something entirely different. The Libyan people have taken their own destiny in their hands, following more than four decades of repression. Now as they are on the cusp of accomplishing their own liberation, the best thing the international community can do is desist from aiding the regime (end military ties, freeze assets, open borders), be responsive to concrete local demands (where emergency supplies or safe passage corridors are requested) and then step aside rather than seeking to regain control of the narrative now being authored by Libyans themselves.

Ziad Abu-Rish and Asli Bali wrote on February 25, 2011 at 04:50 PM

Before reading this article, I had supported the idea of a no-fly zone, but after reading I support the position outlined here. The no-fly zone clearly can not pass the 'do no harm' test and could inflict serious harm on those trying to leave. Further, I'm unsure about what the enforcer airforce's would do when encountering an unauthorized Libyan aircraft. In the 'fog of war' the shooting down of an aircraft could be done in error and could, depending on the true passengers or airplane intent, have consequences that support the Gaddafi regime.

Alex wrote on February 28, 2011 at 11:11 AM

This article really gains an almost prophetic relevance when we look at the mistakes the U.S. and international committee have made in dealing with this situation.

gretchen Head wrote on March 12, 2011 at 05:57 AM

I have written a paper on the international response to the Libya crisis at Also Kofi Annan critical of West's approach reported in today's newspapers. We must return to negotiation not bombing from 10,000 feet.

John Abbey wrote on May 15, 2011 at 01:42 PM

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