18/08/2011 20:03 BST | Updated 18/10/2011 06:12 BST

A Reluctant Responsibility to Protect? UK Attitudes Towards Libya Intervention

By Sharath Srinivasan

As a litmus test for the emergent political idea of 'Responsibility to Protect' (R2P), Libya has offered patchy results. For R2P's promoters, such as Professor Ramesh Thakur (formerly Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations), UN-endorsed and NATO-led action in Libya proves that "R2P is coming closer to being solidified as an actionable norm." At policy-making levels, the debate was not about whether to act, but how best to protect civilians. For its detractors, though, Libya is portentous of politically motivated 'humanitarian' wars without end, in a rejuvenated post-Iraq era of interventionism. Protecting civilians is in danger of becoming a ruse rather than a responsibility.

A month after political protests erupted against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime in mid-February, the United Nations Security Council authorised UN members to "take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians" in Libya, and imposed a no-fly zone and economic sanctions on Tripoli. US, British and French forces launched aerial military operations days later, before other NATO and Arab countries joined the campaign.

Libya militarised and internationalised the Arab Spring in ways now more familiar during the Summer of Discontent. 'Surgical' airstrikes can be impressive. But real political change is a far more complex and unpredictable affair, hostage to fortune and, worse still, to contentious politics. The assassination of the rebel National Transitional Council's (NTC) military leader, General Abdel Fattah Younes, in late July, came just a day after the UK recognised the NTC as Libya's legitimate government. Soon after, the NTC dismissed its top executive body, in effect the government Cabinet to which 30 countries were now lending their recognition. Combined with the seesaw of a military stalemate, such developments blurred the discrete concern of protecting civilians.

In the public square, a YouGov-Cambridge survey of British voters in mid-July indicated there is roughly as much opposition (37%) as support (36%) for the UK government's intervention in Libya, with another quarter of the population either ambivalent or unsure. Party political preferences are not material here, though unsurprisingly Conservative voters are far more supportive (70%) of Prime Minister Cameron's performance than are Labour voters (26%).

More relevantly, the majority of the British public thought the military action was ineffective (52%) rather than effective (29%). But to what ends? Protecting civilians was estimated to be a qualified success, far more so than supporting democratisation in Libya. Yet voters believe the intervention is driven more by the objectives of removing Gaddafi from power and securing access to lucrative oil supplies. Most Britons think that the majority of Libyans want Gaddafi removed from power (64%), but half of them worry that Libyans consider coalition forces are enemies of the people.

British voters are thus doubtful whether protecting civilians is the true objective of the operation, unconvinced this has been effectively pursued, and wary of how military action is being perceived by Libyans. Yet, despite it all, support remains considerable. This is feel good politics, where the intentions that we have in mind seem to matter more than the intentions of our governments, or the results. British public opinion provides domestic ballast for interventionism in foreign policy.

Yet the public's stance is as fickle as it is vague. For a fifth of British voters, 'mission creep' is not perceived as an issue: even if British soldiers lives were lost, the campaign were to drag on, or the UN Security Council withdrew its mandate. Most Britons, however, would reconsider their support, especially if UK ground forces were deployed or if the campaign hurt the British economy, or military capacity to be elsewhere to defend UK interests.

Thus, despite humanitarian ideals, the vast majority of voters are not multilateral cosmopolitans, ready to sacrifice with blood or money for the lofty goals of protecting human life and a global common good. Britons are attracted to upholding liberal ideals - 'saving strangers' - especially where national interests coincide. And we appreciate this must incur costs, so long as the state or someone else pays. When these costs come home to roost, our convictions falter. Interestingly, whether the UN renews its authorisation of the use of military force by NATO or not matters little to the public's support (24% versus 20%) for an ongoing campaign.

We prefer the perspective of identifying and going after an evil-wrongdoer than the messier ethical challenge of taking sides in a civil war. Britons support airstrikes (46%) and sanctions (58%) against Gaddafi, less so supplying weapons to rebels (38%), giving them financial aid (24%) or deploying our own ground forces (18%). And two-thirds of British voters were opposed, ambivalent or unsure about recognising the NTC as Libya's legitimate government, two weeks before the UK did exactly that.

Military means to pursue ostensibly humanitarian ends in other countries remains one of the thorniest issues in international politics. A central aspect of the debate concerns whether right intentions matter more or less than good consequences, whatever the primary intention. It is enough if Libyan lives are saved, irrespective of other political motives? That certainly appears to be the way most Britons see itin this case, so long as it comes without notable sacrifice.

Yet good consequences can be hard to measure in the fog of war. What matters more is the sense of feeling good about what is done in our name. When costs mount and the campaign gets messier, public support falters, unless the feel good factor is replenished. The only way most Britons would support an extended campaign is if Libyan civilians were put in grave danger once again. Of course, all civil wars are risky for civilians. With the Resposibility to Protect, the immediacy and manner by which civilian risk is framed is what matters most. For policy-makers, this means placing rhetorical emphasis on saving Libyan lives threatened by Gaddafi's regime, civil war or not.

Dr. Sharath Srinivasan is the David and Elaine Potter Foundation Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR) at the University of Cambridge. YouGov-Cambridge and CGHR are collaborating on ways to enhance public opinion polling and research in Africa and elsewhere in the less-developed world.