Skip to main content

Timothy Garton Ash

It's a little noticed fact that the London School of Economics doctoral thesis that bears the name of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi makes the case for the kind of military intervention that resulted in his capture and possible death sentence at the hands of what may pass in Libya for justice. Perhaps, in his pretrial captivity, the son of Moammar Gadhafi will have a chance to reflect on the words he once supposedly wrote.

"The international order," says this thesis (an academic panel has yet to rule on charges of plagiarism made against it), "has a responsibility to protect the basic rights of those citizens who live under non-liberal governments" (such as, the reader can't resist adding, his dad's). In the version available online, it argues for a so-called collective management system, involving representatives of civil society and business as well as governments.

And "to the extent that the mechanisms of the collective management system succeed in providing a way to give voice to the citizens of illiberal states, then interventions can be at the invitation of these individuals. When the top levels of the system decide to intervene in another state's affairs, it is therefore an action that has originated from the will of the people at the bottom-most levels."

Translated into plain English, this surely means that, when leaders of the Libyan uprising in Benghazi said Mr. Gadhafi's dad was threatening to hunt them down "alley by alley," and they asked for outside assistance, it helped justify an air campaign sanctioned by the United Nations. The resulting NATO air strikes reportedly cost Mr. Gadhafi the use of several fingers; they also tipped the balance in favour of anti-Gadhafi forces on the ground, leading to the killing of his father.

"Yet," the LSE thesis judiciously continues, "the difficulties involved in any decision to intervene across borders, and the dangers of 'liberal imperialism,' remain and the likelihood that military interventions could be justified, given [the]unpredictable consequences of such action, remains low." Fair comment.

"After Libya" is a good moment to take stock of what is sometimes called liberal intervention. I've recently heard two contrasting views, one from a former U.S. ambassador, the other from a serving British one. Peter Galbraith was a protagonist of U.S. intervention in the former Yugoslavia, where he served as ambassador to Croatia, but has become a fierce critic of the costly incompetence and disastrous consequences of U.S.-led interventions and bungled nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, since the end of the Cold War, Mr. Galbraith sees four "modest successes": Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. The military action was relatively brief, and much of it from the air. The interventions had broad international and regional support. The action relied on local partners. The objectives were limited.

How can he claim Libya as a success? Because success is defined as the achievement of that limited objective: reversing a current or seemingly imminent mass killing of civilians (Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya) or an armed occupation (Kuwait). If things again become horrible in Libya – and reputable observers have already documented human-rights abuses by the country's liberators – you deal with that as it comes.

Sir John Jenkins, Britain's current ambassador to Libya and former ambassador to Iraq, will not settle for that. He recognizes all the elements that made the Libyan action different than that in Iraq, emphasizing the Arab League's support. But he says the lesson often drawn from these interventions – that "state-building is a mug's game" – is the wrong one. The right one is that "state-building is what we have to get right." So the success of intervention can only be claimed in the longer run, if the state it affects turns out to be significantly better than it had been before.

Mr. Galbraith is right on the immediate point. Liberal, humanitarian interventions must be rare, exceptional responses to extreme, inhumane circumstances, and should be judged by their achievement in averting or reversing the disaster. This is pretty much what the UN-endorsed doctrine of "responsibility to protect" says. It sets a very demanding set of conditions, starting with the presence of an extreme humanitarian crisis. There should also be a "reasonable prospect" of averting or halting the suffering – and that the consequences of inaction are likely to be worse than those of action. I think we can say this of Libya.

But then comes the objection often raised in America's Iraq debate, quoting that sign in an antique shop: "If you break it, you own it." To this, there are two answers. First, the West didn't "break" Libya in the sense that it broke Iraq, in a war of choice that wasn't justified under R2P. More important, the world isn't an antique shop. Countries are not porcelain figurines to be picked up and carelessly smashed by visiting Americans.

Think of it like this: You see your neighbour's two-year-old daughter being savaged by his Rottweiler. What do you do? If you're able to, you jump over the fence and beat off the dog with a stick or shoot it with your gun. You may take a special interest in the girl's future, but she doesn't become your daughter; you don't "own" her. No more does the West "own" Libya just because it made a limited, justified intervention there.

Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University.