The Libyan uprising is entering its fourth week. The courage and persistence of the Libyan people’s efforts to overthrow al-Qaddafi have been met with ongoing regime brutality ranging from shoot-to-kill policies to the indiscriminate use of artillery against unarmed civilians. When we last wrote on this subject, we already recognized that the situation in Libya was dire. Since that time the violence of the regime’s unhinged bid to subdue the armed insurgency has only escalated. The mounting civilian death toll resulting from regime brutality has amplified previous calls for international intervention. The Security Council unanimously issued a resolution imposing tough measures against the Libyan regime including an arms embargo, asset freeze, travel ban and a referral of the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court for investigation. More recently, the Arab League has called on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The issue of a no-fly zone is only one of several proposals now being loudly advocated. Others include funneling arms to Libyan rebels and proposals to coordinate with Egyptian commandos allegedly already operating in Libya to provide logistical assistance and training to the rebels. Despite the intuitive appeal of the argument that something must be done, we write again now to oppose calls for the types of international intervention that are currently under discussion.
The desire to act in solidarity with the Libyan people demands that we assess the available options against the core principle of legitimacy that any intervention must satisfy: do no harm (that is, do not do more harm on balance by intervening). The likelihood that any of the current proposals involving coercive intervention would satisfy this principle is severely constrained when evaluated against the historical record, logistical realities, and the incentives and interests of the states in a position to serve as the would-be external interveners. Put simply, coercive external intervention to alter the balance of power on the ground in Libya in favor of the anti-Qaddafi revolt is likely to backfire badly. The attendant costs would, of course, be borne not by those who call for intervention from outside of Libya but by the Libyan people with whom we hope to show solidarity. In what follows we argue that embracing the call for solidarity requires a much more careful appraisal of the interventionist option, precisely because the potential risks will be borne by Libyan civilians.
This article is now featured in Jadaliyya`s edited volume entitled Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of An Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). The volume documents the first six months of the Arab uprisings, explaining the backgrounds and trajectories of these popular movements. It also archives the range of responses that emanated from activists, scholars, and analysts as they sought to make sense of the rapidly unfolding events. Click here to access the full article by ordering your copy of Dawn of the Arab Uprisings from Amazon, or use the link below to purchase from the publisher.