Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Libya and the Dilemmas of Overseas Intervention

David T. Koyzis


April 1, 2011
by David T. Koyzis

There is longstanding disagreement over when, where and whether the United States is justified in intervening in trouble spots overseas. Clearly we cannot police the whole globe, as that would ultimately exhaust our limited resources. Some would prefer that the US withdraw from any and all foreign ventures and focus instead on domestic matters. This policy was followed between the two world wars but failed due to the aggressive ambitions of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

Assuming instead that intervention may be occasionally necessary, proponents of intervention divide themselves into two camps. First are those who believe that the US has an obligation to use its considerable power to protect and even to project abroad the ideals of liberty and justice that undergird the American political project. They regret that we did not intervene in Rwanda to end the genocide in 1994 and would have us acting elsewhere to support popular movements against obvious tyrannies. A number of people, including Michael Gerson, believe that the responsibility to protect justifies the current intervention in Libya’s civil war on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces.

Second are those who believe that the US should intervene only when obvious American interests are at stake. This position is not easily sold to the public because it looks selfish and less evidently concerned for justice. However, proponents argue that it is ultimately the more responsible position because it better recognizes the intrinsic limits of both economic and military power. Calls for humanitarian intervention know no limit, because injustice is a continuing, albeit tragic, reality of human life. Inevitably Washington is forced to decide which injustices require its action and which do not, making it appear to be acting arbitrarily. If it acts to quell a threatened massacre in Libya, it raises questions as to why it has not similarly intervened in Darfur or Zimbabwe.

Moreover, the parties to a civil conflict do not necessarily sort themselves out along obvious in-the-right and in-the-wrong lines. To be sure, Muammar Gaddafi is an altogether unsympathetic figure and has been ruthless in maintaining his power over the decades. However, his threat to the rest of the region and to the world has been virtually nil since the 1980s. Because of Gaddafi’s brutal reputation, the rebels have much of the world’s sympathy. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Times reports that they appear to be taking a leaf from Gaddafi’s playbook, rounding up black Africans on suspicion of being pro-Gaddafi mercenaries and detaining them under inhumane conditions. This is not to defend Gaddafi’s cause or his methods; it is to say that unqualified support for the rebels may not be justified and in any case puts the US and NATO in the awkward position of supporting a movement whose long-term goals are unclear. We could find ourselves doing no more than to pave the way for one dictator to replace another, which is in no one’s interest.

This presents a dilemma for the US. Should it act to uphold its ideals overseas and risk overextending its resources for an uncertain cause? Or should it act in its own interests and risk appearing to throw its weight around for selfish purposes? Neither alternative conforms entirely to the principles of public justice.

According to the Center’s Guidelines for Government and Citizenship, “Countries should see their responsibilities for security, defense, and retributive justice as increasingly interdependent, and should cooperate to strengthen international law and institutions.” President Obama has commendably played down the goal of régime change and has handed over the American role to NATO as of two days ago. Nevertheless, pursuing “the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to its people,” while laudable in principle, may require deeper involvement in that country’s internal affairs than we are able or willing to assume. In the short term, we may have to content ourselves with trying to improve conditions on the ground for ordinary Libyans while bearing in mind the considerable obstacles to achieving that broader goal.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”