Christopher Chivvis is the quintessential policy wonk having rotated in and out of government and the academia, so typical of the career profile of public intellectuals in the United States. Given that he needs the government for access to information and the policy high table, as much as the government needs his brains, it is inevitable that he would write up a favourable account of the US role in toppling Gaddafi. Billeted in the RAND Corporation that has over the decades provided the strategic community in America grist for its incestuous debates, he is as much an insider as a bystander. Consequently, it is entirely understandable that he concludes: ‘The results are far from perfect and postwar stabilization has faltered, but ultimately the choice to intervene was the right one (p. 205).’
The book is an account of the events in 2011 in which the French and UK supported by the US initially launched Operation Odyssey Dawn to be followed soon thereafter by the NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. It covers the events leading up to the intervention; the diplomacy that attended the intervention; the military operations of the NATO; and US policy choices during the war. It makes the case that the regime’s actions in Benghazi in early 2011 created conditions for the intervention under the framework of the new fangled concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). As a slim volume priced affordably, it has something for everyone. But it is unlikely that readers in the region will find in it much to agree with.
In particular, the author’s answer that the intervention was right is rather glib. At the time of writing of this review three years after the intervention, primetime news has it that Tripoli’s airport has been shut down because of fighting between rival militia groups in the vicinity. This cannot but be attributed to the influx of weaponry and perfunctory training given by Special Forces troops to the tribal militias that sprung up in wake of the intervention. It shows how easy it is to engineer the conditions that can then be used to legitimate premeditated operations citing R2P. Similarly, regimes were displaced in Afghanistan and Iraq and there is a concerted move underway to displace the one in Syria. The human cost in volved has been borne by the societies subject to the ‘liberal’ attention of the West, but more likely subject to its incessant quest for strategic and commercial advantage.
In Kosovo, where liberal intervention made its debut, the Albanians continue to remain at odds with the Serbs both in Serbia and within their own state, now with a considerably thinned down Serb population. Kosovo, with runaway unemployment and poverty by European standards, even a decade and half since the liberal intervention there is far from a success story. The US ignominiously quit Iraq and TV screens today tell us in no uncertain terms the outcome. It is in the process of leaving Afghanistan and it is inescapable that an Iraq like future awaits that benighted state.
Therefore, the author’s conclusion that the outcome cannot be taken to gauge that an intervention is untenable. In fact, discerning the possible consequences is a prerequisite to intervention. Indeed it is a just war precept that the possibility of success must be considered prior to resorting to military means. The first precept in humanitarian affairs is ‘do no harm’, or do not proceed with anything that can make a bad situation worse. By this yardstick intervention was not only illegitimate but also immoral.
It is by now well known as to why this was so in the case of Libya. Though Gaddafi had mended fences with the West, yet the eagerness of France and UK to attack and displace him requires explanation. It is now common knowledge that the Libyan dictator had reportedly funded the campaign for Presidency by Sarkozy, detained at the time of writing of this review for political corruption. It is no wonder the French led the coalition, with the US in this instance ‘leading from behind’. ‘Old Europe’ was in the lead, with Germany keeping out due to reservations on the advisability of the intervention. That the author notes this as a useful extension of NATO’s out of area operations, begun in Kosovo and later extended to Afghanistan, itself is clue as to the motives behind the intervention. To then claim that this owed to liberal principles is to stretch credulity a bit.
A tenet of R2P that was violated was in such interventions ceasing when the conditions that give rise to them are reversed. Even if it is assumed that Benghazi was about to fall to the dictator’s atrocities, the threat to Benghazi had receded within a week of the intervention. However, continuing with the intervention was necessary. This was easily provided with the initial intervention itself providing the rationale for further protection necessary for the rebelling population at multiple centers across Libya. Easily fanned, these rebellions attracted Gaddafi’s military action, thereby providing cover for continuing operations and mission creep that culminated in displacement of Gaddafi as the aim of the operation, even though this was not envisaged in the enabling UN resolution. The regime’s chances of survival were sealed with NATO’s airpower dominating the airspace as were the hopes of any conflict resolution initiative, such as by President Zuma on behalf of the AU.
The author situates the intervention in the context of the unfolding Arab Spring that had by then rocked both neighbours of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. He reasons that it was necessary in order to preserve the Arab Spring’s momentum lest it be suppressed by dictators. By that yardstick what the Bahrainis did, with Saudi backing, and Saudis do to keep any fresh breeze out of their sheikhdoms should invite western liberal attention. Selectivity further vitiates the liberal intervention paradigm.
Clearly, if there are such potent arguments against the concept and its precedence setting practice by the West, there needed to have been greater engagement with these counter arguments by the author. By instead faithfully regurgitating what his Pentagon and Foggy Bottom informants feed him, the author has lost credibility. The crux of the matter encapsulated by the subtitle of the book— the limits of liberal intervention—remains unaddressed. Even in military matters, the book provides limited insight since the choice of the dictator to displace was made by the US-NATO combine: an isolated dictator earlier already defanged of his nuclear ambitions.
Clearly, the book is a propaganda tract, an example of how the academia-strategic community embrace in the US. This is important to register in India in the midst of a strategic partnership with the US, lest India’s intellectual distance from the US, that endlessly irritates the US, dissipates under the onslaught of not only such tracts but also of their universities and think tanks set to open doors into India.
Ali Ahmed is the author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014) and blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in. Views expressed are personal.