The execution-style killing of Muammar al-Qaddafi by a mob of gunmen in the ruins of Sirte last week put an end to NATO's six-month military intervention in Libya. Unless the country descends into anarchy or an equally abhorrent dictator succeeds Qaddafi, the Libya intervention will be regarded as a victory for the West, for the United States, and for that reluctant but surprisingly fierce warrior, President Barack Obama. And it's a victory that came on the cheap. It is rare thing indeed for the Pentagon to spend as little as $1 billion on a successful military campaign, without losing ten times that amount in the sofa cushions.
But if the Libya intervention turns out to be a political and moral victory, it also illustrates once again the motto, inter arma silent leges -- in times of war, the law falls mute. Both international and U.S. law took a drubbing alongside Qaddafi's ragtag army, casting further doubt upon the already tenuous notion that international military actions can be conducted on a legal basis.
The basis for the intervention under international law was dubious from the start. Libya is a sovereign state and, as a matter of international law, NATO cannot bomb it without a legal justification. The rebels' request for military intervention could not override the government's quite understandable, if regrettable, refusal to give its consent to be bombed. So, the United States and NATO turned to the U.N. Security Council, which enjoys the power under the U.N. Charter to authorize military interventions in foreign countries.
But two problems arose. The first was the legal justification for intervening. The Charter gives the Security Council authority to take actions to promote peace and collective security. But Libya did not threaten its neighbors or any other country. The purpose of the intervention, according to the resolution that authorized it, was to protect Libyan civilians from their government.
Some commentators claimed that the Libyan intervention was justified by the Responsibility to Protect (obnoxiously known as "R2P"), a principle formally endorsed by U.N. members in 2005. The Responsibility to Protect requires all countries to protect their own civilians, and may permit the international community to intervene if they do not. However, the Responsibility to Protect never achieved the status of international law because states were not willing to embody the principle in a binding treaty. As a principle or norm, it has been applied selectively, to say the least. No one seems interested in protecting Syrian or North Korean civilians from their governments. The truth is that the Responsibility to Protect is too capacious a norm to regulate states: It can be cited to justify virtually any intervention in the type of country that the West might want to invade, while it can also be evaded on grounds that it is not formal law, so countries can avoid intervening in a crisis when intervention does not serve their interests.