Humanitarian Inquisition

Does success in Libya prove that the "responsibility to protect" works, or has it opened a Pandora's box of shaky precedent?

The defeat of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime has produced a vigorous debate about the lessons of the intervention. Plenty of the commentary has focused on what the rebel victory means for U.S. President Barack Obama's political future and his foreign-policy doctrine of "leading from behind," as well as the NATO alliance. But beyond the Beltway, in capitals all over the globe, the Libya experience is also an important test for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, which has moved in and out of fashion during the past two decades. For those think that the international community should stop the depredations of violent regimes -- by force if necessary -- Libya is a milestone. But the intervention also poses some difficult questions.  

1. Is a slow victory better than a quick defeat?

Western-led intervention in Libya was designed to avert the defeat and feared massacre of regime opponents in the rebel capital of Benghazi. The massacre didn't happen. (Whether it ever would have is a matter of significant debate, though revelations of massacres by government forces in Tripoli bolster the case.) Instead, intervention produced a grinding six-month conflict that still hasn't fully ended. By most accounts, the conflict has taken at least 20,000 lives. At least one National Transitional Committee (NTC) commander estimates that 50,000 Libyans have died. If the sole criterion is whether lives were saved, the operation may have failed. It's at least possible that a quick victory by Qaddafi -- which appeared likely in February -- would have resulted in fewer deaths than the prolonged conflict.

The notion of acquiescing to a brutal crackdown on humanitarian grounds may seem perverse. But humanitarians make that kind of calculation all the time, though not always explicitly. The scale of human suffering in North Korea, for instance, dwarfs that in Libya. Yet no serious observer calls for intervention there, because of the expected cost. In Libya, Western policymakers argued that the balance tilted in favor of action. But particularly if a humanitarian intervention will be limited to air support for local resistance, the expected toll of prolonged fighting must be factored into the calculus.

Unless, that is, the humanitarian calculus is not the most important one. Intervention can support all sorts of other values and goals, including self-determination and self-government. Supporting a rebel group with a just cause might be the right choice even if doing so produces a prolonged and bloody conflict. Taking those other objectives into account, however, requires a debate that goes well beyond a simple humanitarian calculus.

2. Is Security Council approval necessary?

Britain, France, and the United States made winning the U.N. Security Council's approval for intervention in Libya a priority. A Russian or Chinese veto would have stopped the operation in its tracks, and Qaddafi today would likely be mopping up the remnants of a scattered opposition. That Libya's fate was effectively in the hands of Moscow and Beijing is a reminder that humanitarianism, at least sanctioned by the United Nations, depends on power politics.

Advocates of an international "responsibility to protect" (R2P) were thrilled that the powerful Security Council appeared to be endorsing the doctrine. Their joy may have been premature. The council soon divided into different camps on the conduct of the campaign, with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) in particular roundly criticizing what they saw as NATO's abuses of its authority.

Instead of cementing R2P into council practice, the Libya experience may have made future Security Council backing for humanitarian intervention less likely, at least in the medium term. Russia and China have been extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on Syria, in part because they don't want to start down the road taken in Libya. And that means that the international community will likely be forced to grapple again with how R2P meshes with existing international law, which requires Security Council approval for uses of force other than self-defense.

3. Can you defend civilians without taking sides?

As the BRIC countries and other critics have pointed out repeatedly, NATO's Libya action almost immediately became a regime-change operation, albeit a limited and halting one. In the midst of the campaign, NATO's Libya triumvirate -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Obama -- made clear that Qaddafi's defeat was essential. "It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power," they wrote in mid-April. NATO's air power gradually wore down the regime's military forces. Coalition aircraft targeted Qaddafi's forces not only when they were engaged in attacks on civilians but when they were fighting armed rebels, transiting from one location to another, or simply idling in the desert. Western planes bombed the regime's senior leadership and selectively enforced the U.N. arms embargo on Libya so as to permit a flow of weapons to the rebels. Outside forces had a mandate to protect civilians; instead, they effectively became the rebel air force, special operations wing, and intelligence service.

The divergence between the mission's legal mandate and its methods drove some observers to distraction. But the duplicity was inevitable. Outsiders always struggle to police conflicts neutrally, and that difficult task becomes all but impossible from the air. Siding with the rebels was the only intervention strategy that made operational sense. The problem was not the strategy, but the inability of those intervening to honestly explain what they were doing. Because the Security Council never would have endorsed intervention on behalf of the rebels, intervening governments felt compelled to cast the entire operation in terms of neutral civilian protection.

This dynamic introduces a significant legitimacy problem for R2P. Non-Western observers are already wary of a doctrine that they believe easily slides into neocolonialism. The manifest partiality of the West's Libya intervention -- and its inability to speak clearly about what it was doing -- will likely heighten those concerns.

4. Does limited involvement mean limited responsibility?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell famously proposed a "Pottery Barn rule" for intervention: You break a country, you own it. No one doubts that NATO's intervention was critical to the success of the anti-regime forces. Six months of air support turned the tide. So does the Pottery Barn rule apply? Or does the fact that international military intervention came from on high mean that outsiders have a lesser obligation in a post-Qaddafi Libya? Western political leaders appear to believe so. NATO has passed responsibility for the post-conflict phase to the United Nations, though its members know well that lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers would not be capable of maintaining order if tribal or ethnic conflict broke out. (NTC leaders have said that they do not want U.N. peacekeepers in any case).

It's not clear why the Western obligation to Libya should be reduced because they destroyed the Qaddafi regime from the air. Outsiders determined Libya's political future no less obviously than the United States did in Iraq. The United States had a clear obligation to help restrain the violence that its invasion in Mesopotamia set in motion. The Western obligation won't be any less if post-Qaddafi Libya descends into violence.

5. Are civilian lives the only ones that matter?

The rhetoric about protecting civilians has become so ubiquitous in recent years that it's possible to forget that modern wars actually involve armed combatants -- and that limiting their suffering and death is also an important goal. There's relatively little sympathy for the mercenaries who populated Qaddafi's army, and maybe that's as it should be. But Qaddafi's forces were not entirely mercenary; they also included plenty of conscripts, some reportedly as young as 15. Western hearts bleed for Libyan civilians but are unmoved when a Qaddafi conscript -- who likely had no say in whether to fight -- is incinerated in a tank. The doctrine of protecting civilians responds to a powerful moral impulse: that civilians have not chosen conflict and are not trained for it. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many of those compelled to fight for despotic regimes.

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Crisis Convergence

Why the global economic crash, the rise of the Tea Party, the Arab Spring, and China’s coming fall are all connected.

The clamor of economic and political events this year -- including the Arab Spring, the intensification of the Western economic crisis, the rise of the Tea Party, and the growing ascendancy of China -- has been deafening. But though most reporting has described these events as disconnected, they are far from coincidental.

The crisis of capitalism that erupted with the 2008 financial bust has very much to do with all of these seemingly disparate events. During the long boom period from 1980 to 2008, mainstream thinking ignored the principles of political economy laid out by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Instead, we got monetarism, free market ideology, Alan Greenspan's facile notions of a "new economy," and even the often self-serving hype about China's ability to rule the world and sustain global prosperity. Today, we can see better how the crisis of 2008 and 2009 marked the end of one era and the start of a new and still very uncertain one.

Smith, widely seen as the father of modern capitalism, had been convinced that public institutions were essential to a well-functioning market economy. But Marx in particular resonates today -- not for his predictions of capitalism's collapse, but for his analysis that "contradictions" between capital and labor would lead to recurrent economic and political crises, and social conflict. And Keynes continues to loom larger than life as a reminder that crises in capitalism need not be terminal.

The 2008 eruption demonstrated the hollowness of claims made by economists and politicians in the 1980s and thereafter that lasting stability and prosperity would be assured by low inflation, free markets, and unfettered globalization. The last quarter-century of faulty economic thinking has left us with a sour and acrimonious legacy, including the need to reduce the dead weight of 25 years of accumulated debt; the loss of credit creation, housing, and financial services as leading drivers of growth; rising income inequality; and a populist backlash against political and financial elites. The crisis shocked the pre-existing economic and political order on a scale unseen since the 1930s. The fabric of globalization, which had been stitched together around the so-called Washington Consensus, began to fray.

Seen in this light, many of 2011's international developments don't look so random at all. It was perhaps inevitable that the weakest links in the global system suddenly became much more vulnerable. And the Middle East certainly qualifies as a weak link, not least because the countries from the Sahara to Saudi Arabia were not strongly anchored into the globalization of manufacturing and finance, save through oil-dominated autocratic regimes supported by Western powers.

There is little question that the crisis has drained U.S. economic power and legitimacy, a dynamic that has been aided and abetted by a rising China. As the United States confronts economic, demographic, budgetary, and populist constraints over its global role and power, "American decline" has gone from fringe theory to conventional wisdom in a few short years.

This view may also be myopic, but for now the United States is on its back foot and under increasing pressure to readjust its global position. This fact was highlighted by its decision, after initial hesitancy, to lend its support to the removal of President Hosni Mubarak from power in Egypt, along with its threat to block financial aid if he did not step down. The decline in American influence doubtlessly also emboldened opponents of regimes elsewhere -- for example, in Bahrain, Tunisia, and Yemen -- to call for their rulers' overthrow.

But the conditions for the Arab Spring already existed before American decline took hold. For more than two decades, per capita incomes in the Middle East -- with the exception of those in the low-population oil states -- have been low and stagnant. Unemployment rates have averaged 25 percent in parts of the region, a statistic that masks much higher rates among those under 30. The spark for these conditions to explode into a revolution came with soaring food and energy prices. Here, too, the fingerprints of the beleaguered and debt-ridden Western economies can be found.

The U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks responded to the aftermath of the financial crisis by adopting emergency stimulus measures known as "quantitative easing," in which the Fed bought large quantities of mortgage-backed and other financial assets to help relieve the arterial blockages in the banking system. In November 2010, the Fed implemented a second round of quantitative easing, deciding to buy $600 billion of U.S. Treasury bonds by June 2011 to help spur lending and spending by households and companies. Although it is hard to quantify this program's impact on world commodity prices, it unquestionably contributed to the rising food prices that proved decisive for the revolutionary movements. Printing money undermines confidence in paper currencies, including the U.S. dollar, and prompts investors and companies to buy real or physical assets, including metals, energy, and agricultural commodities, as a hedge against currency losses and fears of rising inflation.

The consequences of the crisis in Western capitalism are also having repercussions in China, which was the biggest beneficiary of the pre-crisis political and economic order. Political unrest in China has so far remained manageable: The country's "jasmine" human rights protests earlier this year proved ineffectual, and food price-related disturbances have also fizzled out. Much bigger matters of economic stability and political legitimacy are stalking China, however.

China's capitalist model has delivered unprecedented economic success over the last quarter-century. But it is a model that is now flawed. The slump in Western demand caused China's export industries to shudder in 2008 and 2009, with exports declining by over a third in the year to the first quarter of 2009. Thousands of factories in the Pearl River Delta shut down, and 20 million migrant workers were reportedly forced to return to rural areas for lack of work.

China recovered quickly due to a stimulus program worth about 14 percent of its GDP and the global economic bounce last year, but exporters now face a very different world dictated by anemic Western consumption and growth prospects. Moreover, the explosion of credit creation since 2008 and the unsustainable rise in investment and residential real estate spending are sowing the seeds of rising inflation. The instability that will likely follow may remain in abeyance until after the Chinese Communist Party's leadership change in 2012, but China's economy is already slowing to a growth rate of around 8 percent.

In some ways, this July's high-speed rail tragedy on the newly opened Beijing-Shanghai line serves as a metaphor for China: It's a high-speed economy with (capitalist) design faults that, sooner or later, will result in an accident. There are already strong signs that the quality of investment, and of investment financing, is deteriorating. Left unaddressed, these trends might well validate Marx's prediction that investment booms, endemic in capitalism, end up in overproduction and underconsumption, and then social conflict.

China has limited time to effect a radical political and economic shift. It has to take power and privilege away from state-owned companies, coastal regions, and regional party elites. It must also de-emphasize capital investment, which currently accounts for an unprecedented 50 percent of GDP. And it has to prioritize a bigger economic weight for household consumption, which accounts for a mere 35 percent of GDP, a fairer income distribution, better employment for China's annual flow of 6 million graduates, the rights of rural migrants, and the neglected countryside.

If this shift doesn't start in earnest soon, the Chinese economy will succumb to a credit and investment bust from which significantly slower growth would follow. This will be especially sensitive in a China where incidents of social unrest are increasing significantly in number, intensity, and breadth. In the absence of the rule of law and other critical social institutions, the state's assurance of steady and persistent annual growth of 8 to 10 percent represents a social contract. If it is broken, China could suffer significant political repercussions.

Rebalancing in China promises to be an intensely political, as well as economic, process. There is great uncertainty as to whether the Communist Party's reputation for pragmatism will stand up to this challenge, especially if China's "princelings," the children of the revolutionary leaders, increase their influence in the new leadership. Should China fail, its economy is at risk of stalling out in a few short years -- a development that would make this tumultuous year appear to be the calm before another storm.