The Blog

The Necessary Force of Humanitarian Intervention

It isn't when people are proved right that they become convinced of the righteousness of their arguments. It is when they have been proved wrong.

It isn't when people are proved right that they become convinced of the righteousness of their arguments. It is when they have been proved wrong. Nothing illustrates this better than John Wight's article on these pages this week.

After making one cursory remark indicating his disapproval of Gaddafi, Wight launched into a vituperative tirade against the West, capitalism, imperialism, 'the White House and its European satraps'.

The retired satrap Jacques Chiraq would be amused (as would his supposed suzerain George W Bush). The war on Libya was apparently symptomatic of the illusory nature of state sovereignty, the West adept at 'exerting control over the resource rich developing world'.

Most bizarrely of all (in a responsive comment he made) the US's objective - notwithstanding Wight's admission that its oil comes mostly from elsewhere - is to break OPEC's 'control over production and global prices' in order to 'act as a bulwark against China'. His great insight obviously goes back no further than 1980, as he ignores the 1970s oil crisis in which Saudi Arabia held the west to ransom, causing an inflationary economic crisis to boot.

Wight's analysis is particularly flawed when he describes the Arab Spring, as an 'unravelling' symptomatic of the 'global crisis of capitalism'. The evidence is far from supportive of this bare assertion. As Andrey Korotayev notes in an authoritative exploration of the statistics, Egypt had been experiencing consistently high levels of growth throughout the Mubarak era, it had an unemployment rate lower than the US (a rate decreasing in 2010) as its GDP per capita continue to expand. Indeed, its level of extreme poverty was lower than Turkey's. Amar Maleki, making the same point in respect of Tunisia, points, rather, to indicators suggesting a deficit of democracy in each of the Magrebian and Levantine states affected by the revolutions.

While it may seem unfair to focus on yet one journalistic reaction, the flawed nature of this analysis of the context of the Libyan intervention is significant as it obscures the facts whilst revealing a prejudice that lies behind much of the opposition to Liberal interventionism.

Wight dubs the mission 'imperialistic'. Yet, quite apart from the fact that the No Fly Zone was authorised by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on 17th March, the Coalition acted at the invitation of a revolutionary movement that had, in February, taken control of the second city of Libya and much of the east of the country. Conventional international law establishes that forces in such a position should be declared 'belligerent' (a status recognised by states including France early in the conflict). Thus, what would otherwise have been an internal rebellion was raised to the status of an international conflict, requiring that the forces of both parties respect the Geneva Convention. Where either force acts in contravention of these basic standards of international law, for example by murdering civilians indiscriminately and practising a scorched earth policy, foreign powers arguably have the right to intervene in defence of rebel forces even without an express UNSC Resolution (see Article 51 of the UN Charter). Indeed, members of the international community have a positive duty to 'prevent and punish' genocide under the UN Charter.

So, far from acting in an imperialistic manner, NATO and the Arab League, acting with UN approval, have done no more than to protect the Libyan people from war crimes.

This begs the question of what naysayers such as John Wight, happy breast beating their horror at the iniquities of the West, would have done in February. The only possible answer - being the only possible alternative - would have been to allow Gaddafi to finish the job. Considering the regime's ability, in late February, to push the rebels back from their early gains and the rebel forces' difficulty in securing Misrata, there is every prospect that that is exactly what he would have done. Those who support this mission are not squeamish enough to deny the inevitable casualties it has caused. But, had it never happened, those now laying claim to the moral high ground would have had blood on their hands; the same blood from which the West will never be cleansed after the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica.