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Opinion Intervention in Libya flawed, perhaps, but better than inaction

Supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi demonstrate in Tripoli.

Jerome Delay/AP

Politicians don't win re-election with bumper stickers that say: "It could have been worse." This is the communications challenge facing the Obama White House as officials strain to convince people that the multinational military intervention in Libya was necessary.

It's a daunting task given the prospect of a lengthy air operation that, instead of ending Libya's war, may serve to perpetuate a bloody stalemate. Were the United States and the United Nations Security Council wrong to opt for quick intervention over cautious planning, despite warnings that air power might not be enough to tip the battlefield balance in favour of anti-government rebels?

"We were looking at 'Srebrenica on steroids,' the real or imminent possibility that up to 100,000 people could be massacred and everyone would blame us for it," White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross reportedly said in a private meeting.

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It's impossible to say how many might have died in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, but Mr. Ross is right that the result would almost certainly have been a bloodbath. The forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi were poised to assault the city with "no mercy and no pity." Based on his track record, his threatening words were alarmingly credible.

Imagine, if you will, the anguished debate that would now be taking place if such a massacre had occurred and we had lifted nary a finger to stop it - despite all the warning signs flashing bright red. What would we be saying about ourselves, the UN and the "international community" if we had stood by and watched this happen? The U.S. and Barack Obama himself would have been blamed for a failure of leadership, not least because the Arab League and key Western allies were calling for immediate intervention to protect the threatened inhabitants of Benghazi.

This is the Achilles heel of preventive intervention: If it works, a potentially devastating event has been averted. Paradoxically, however, it becomes impossible to prove that the devastating event would necessarily have transpired if not for the intervention. The impact of a non-event can't really be felt - it can only be imagined.

What if the international community had intervened more decisively in Bosnia or Rwanda before the bloodletting occurred in those countries? In hindsight, many believe we could have saved hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. But if a coalition of outsiders had taken stronger action, their operations would have been unavoidably messy, and the costs and complexity of such interventions might have been judged negatively.

Mr. Obama already encountered a similar problem in a different domain. In the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections in 2010, his opponents accused him of having spent wildly on economic stimulus. The President replied that his stimulus programs staved off a serious depression. It was a hard sell: A worse depression may have been imminent, but stimulus spending was visible and costly.

So yes, it seems undeniable that the multinational air campaign in Libya lacked clear objectives beyond the initial intervention. It could have been better planned. And there may indeed be unforeseen consequences, including the temptations of mission creep.

But, on balance, even this deeply flawed intervention was probably better than inaction. Although we'll never know with certainty, it could have been worse - much worse.

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Roland Paris is director of the Centre for International Policy Studies and associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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