Reassessing the Libyan Intervention
Apr 17, 2011

Reassessing the Libyan Intervention

As the NATO bombing campaign in Libya nears the one month mark, we can - and indeed must - reassess our previous opinions on the Libyan intervention with the new information that has become available. There is a caveat that we should keep in mind before we proceed: actions must be judged on their likely outcomes not their actual outcomes. In a world of limited information where predictions are very difficult, one can run into problems with retroactively applying new information to judge past actions. Nonetheless, this reassessment process can help guide our actions both now and in the future and given that the conflict in Libya is far from over the imperative to do just this is strong.

The ostensible goal of the "humanitarian intervention" in Libya was to prevent "a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world", as Obama put it. Let us accept this framing and discuss the war entirely from the perspective of minimizing human deaths while ignoring other geopolitical factors such as described here. My hesitation with the war on these grounds was that it was based on two assumptions which may or may not be valid. Firstly, the assumption that Benghazi being surrounded by Qaddafi forces would have led to an imminent massacre. Secondly, there is an assumption that while not explicitly stated is both implicit and necessary to justify the intervention. Namely, that the fighting that results after the initial intervention is going to be less violent than otherwise. I worried that through the limited use of force, there was a reasonable possibility that the rebels would get entrenched into a prolonged civil war whose casualties and effects on the citizens and society of Libya would be considerable worse than the perhaps overblown dangers of doing nothing in Benghazi.

My worst fears have not yet materialized, although it is only a month in, since there has yet to be a massive massacre on either side. There has however been considerable fighting, many hundreds dead, perhaps hundreds of thousands continue to be displaced and there is no clear end or outcome in sight. A month ago the narrative that was floating around was that it was quite possible the rebels would easily take over the Qaddafi forces, dispose Qaddafi and a new era of populist democracy would sweep through. That hope is as yet not arrived. Even then I was worried a considerable resistance from the west would result in continued suffering even if Tripoli was take and Qaddafi removed. Instead, there has been a back and forth of towns switching sides with neither side apparently capable given the current conditions of winning tactically. In short, the fighting is not as bad as it could have been but it is nonetheless still bad and the possibilities for the future retain heavy violence options.

The counterfactual of what would have happened in Benghazi were it not for the intervention can also be reassessed given new information. We can never directly know what would have happened, but we can use what happened in similar situations a proxy to estimate what is likely to have occurred in Benghazi. As this Op-Ed describes well, the next largest city after Benghazi, Misurata, has experienced extensive back and forth fighting and yet demonstrates none of the examples of extensive massacring of innocent civilians - only 3% of the dead were women, for instance - that was worried about for Benghazi. As the author describes at some length, facts that were both known at the time and can be emphasized with recent knowledge suggest strongly that the worries about massacres in Benghazi were inflated.

These issues are very difficult because uncertainty alone cannot and must not be reason not to engage in action. The uncertainty which shrouded the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides - those two classic causes for liberal interventionism - resulted in delayed action to the detriment of enormous numbers of people. However, in situations that have such uncertainty it becomes too easy to exaggerate the risks of not engaging in war and to minimize the risks of engaging. When we combine the evidence of an inflated risk for Benghazi with the resulting highly unsatisfactory, violent situation to which considerable uncertainty remains it is a picture that strongly questions the wisdom of the bombing campaign in Libya.

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