Yesterday British, French and American forces began their bombardment of Libya enforcing the provisions of UNSC Resolution 1973, which calls for “all necessary measures” to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas” under the brutal and indiscriminate attack from Moammar Gaddafi’s loyalist forces. This broad mandate is conversely limited by the equally broad instruction that foreign forces are not permitted to occupy “in any form on any part of Libyan territory” – on the surface a very sensible limitation given the justifiable suspicions about yet another Western military action in an ostensibly Muslim country.
However, ignoring any question about the motives behind the decision to bomb Libya, and taking Western leaders at their word that this intervention is truly “humanitarian” in intent, a second question can be raised: will it be humanitarian in its implementation? This begs a much larger question as to whether the use of force can ever be beneficent when by their very nature they are violent, but we’ll ignore that as it is a much larger topic. Instead, it is worth addressing whether or not this air assault (and given the wording of the resolution, the pledges of the participants, and the lack of public support the campaign will almost certainly be limited to the air) can be carried out in such a way as to stall if not completely stop Gaddafi’s massacre of innocent Libyans. My answer is no. The reason? One word: Kosovo.
As an occasional historian I am somewhat loath to compare two cases that may appear to have a handful of similarities on the surface but dozens of variances that are not quite so apparent. However, the political scientist in me says that their are certain universal principles related to the application of the military instrument of policy that create undeniable parallels between the bombing of Serbia 12 years ago and the campaign against Libya today – parallels that should at the very least caution those that are championing today’s bombing.
Like the current operation against Gaddafi, the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia was prosecuted with little popular support. With polls indicating that two-thirds of Americans feel that Washington should not be involved in the current campaign (British polls indicate a split) there isn’t a strong base to begin with in the current intervention. Lack of popular support necessitates a quick and near bloodless (read: Western blood) war, meaning that like the 1999 Kosovo war, the air campaign will have to be conducted from a safe distance of about 20 to 30,000 feet. This simply does not work.
In Kosovo the air war began, at least ostensibly, to protect Kosovar-Albanians and halt their forced expulsion from Serbia’s southern province. However, the ill-conceived air campaign inevitably failed in its most basic task as it was unable to effectively engage Serb military and police units on the ground, allowing them to step-up their atrocities against civilians and “cleanse” 800,000 Kosovar-Albanians (approximately 75% of the ENTIRE population of Kosovo) within the first month.
Admittedly NATO was ultimately successful in securing the return of these refugees under the protection of a multinational peacekeeping force, however, it is debatable whether this came about as a result of the successful use of coercive air power (even Britain’s leading commander in the operation disputes the success of the air bombardment) or a multi-pronged diplomatic approach. What is most evident is that NATO failed to prevent an exponentially worse humanitarian crisis through air power alone. Unwilling to risk even the remote danger presented by the third-rate Serb air defence systems by flying below 20,000 feet, NATO forces had minute impact on forward Serbian forces and in fact inflicted in excess of 1,000 civilian casualties, both Serbian and Albanian, through the unnecessarily thick fog of war generated by that decision. In the end, for all their lofty ideals Western leaders had decided that a persecuted minority was worth fighting for, but not worth dying for.
In Libya we are likely to see a similar situation. As stated above, popular support for intervention is weak, particularly in America. President Obama is aware of this and as a result has been content to allow British PM David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to take the lead, while also hinting that American involvement will be short-lived (another parallel: NATO leaders believed Slobodan Milosovic would cave within days of the start of the air campaign in 1999 – it ended up taking nearly three months!) though it is highly doubtful that regional actors will be able to sustain an air campaign without American support should the ground war persist. If Western military men start returning in body bags expect support to drop to near nil.
While Libyan air defences may be even more antiquated than those protecting Serb forces in 1999 they still pose a definite danger to Western pilots, made greater by the difficulties posed for extracting downed pilots due to the lack of proximate regional bases. This may convince the coalition to take even greater caution in prosecuting the war than in Serbia a decade ago. If this is the case, what help can they provide in preventing a greater humanitarian catastrophe? If coalition planes do engage Libyan ground forces from 30,000 feet mistakes are bound to be made. With Gaddafi’s men penetrating the last rebel stronghold, the densely populated city of Benghazi these mistakes will inevitably result in the deaths of innocent civilians.
Can an already unpopular intervention withstand the criticism that will follow? More importantly, can a campaign based on a systemic reckless aversion to personal risk still be considered humanitarian – even in the loosest sense of the word? If in the coming days it becomes evident that the coalition is lacking in selfless concern for the welfare of those it was tasked by the UN to protect, the Libyan campaign will serve as yet another example that war and virtue are antonyms, regardless of how a conflict is packaged. “Humanitarian Intervention” will cement itself as a PR term completely lacking in substance, used to aid in the machinations of misguided, if not, evil men. Put simply, altruism doesn’t exist at 30,000 feet.