Iraq's scars remain upon the face of western intervention
Western leaders should re-read David Cameron's speech of February 5 before the Munich Security Conference. At the time, the British prime minister spoke of the failure of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. What he said, however, also raises interesting questions about international, particularly western, behaviour toward Libya.
In his speech, Mr Cameron described the alienation of some Muslim youths from British life and traditional Islam, before lamenting that "under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, [Britain has] encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We've failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong". The prime minister noted that tolerance for those rejecting British values had gone too far. "When a white person holds objectionable views, racist views for instance, we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices come from someone who isn't white, we've been too cautious frankly - even fearful - to stand up to them."
Now take Mr Cameron's logic and apply it internationally to the persistent indecision in the United States and Europe over how to prevent the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, from regaining control over his country - which in all likelihood will lead to a bloodbath of retribution.
There are, of course, differences between the UK and the global community. If western states are the primary representatives of liberal democratic values and practices in the world, this must find some translation in international relations.
Throughout the 1990s, the debate over humanitarian intervention was at the heart of the decade's major conflicts. Whether it was Iraq in the aftermath of the First Gulf War in 1991, or Somalia, Rwanda or Kosovo later on, western governments - and Bill Clinton's administration above all - struggled to find the right balance between defending national interests and ending carnage whose continuation western voters found unbearable.
There was no overall agreement on humanitarian intervention, not least because China and Russia, two of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, generally opposed such action. However, by the end of the 1990s, there was a noticeable shift towards narrowing the traditional boundaries of state sovereignty, even if this meant circumventing the UN, as happened with Serbia over Kosovo. The prevailing mood was that in situations where human rights and universal values were violated, outside involvement was necessary, with or without the proper legal sanction.
That drift was abruptly reversed by the decision of the George W Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003. Washington tried to go the UN, but when this failed, it borrowed an idea from the Clinton years, namely that American military power could be a force for good; success itself would impose the required legitimacy. Mr Bush, until then a relative isolationist and a critic of Mr Clinton's "state-building" policies, saw the September 11 attacks as his own Kosovo, indeed much more than that. He invaded Afghanistan, and less than two years later sent his soldiers to Baghdad.
There was just one problem. If success could retroactively legitimise military action, the Bush administration came up short in two ways: it failed to stabilise Iraq because of shoddy post-war planning, and its decision to spurn the UN angered important states that could have helped in Iraqi normalisation. Suddenly, any form of intervention was no longer regarded as justifiable without a battery of international prerequisites. And yet the Iraqis were doubtless as deserving of humanitarian assistance as the Libyans are today, a point affirmed in several Security Council resolutions, particularly Resolution 687.
It is the divisive legacy of Iraq more than anything else that is responsible for the preconditions now being tossed up as supposedly necessary to validate a military move against Col Qaddafi. Much of this is hypocrisy and obfuscation. Very few countries, least of all the United States, truly want to move on Libya, and by piling on the caveats they make a consensus more difficult to attain. In the meantime, the Libyan leader's units are advancing on the remaining rebel strongholds.
Which leads us back to Mr Cameron. One of the arguments made against western intercession in Libya is that it might bring about yet another conflict between western forces and Muslims, which would outrage the Arab world. That's probably untrue on political grounds, and it's unacceptable on moral grounds. As the British prime minister pointedly implied in his Munich speech, when deplorable views are held or actions undertaken by someone who isn't white: "We've been too cautious frankly - even fearful - to stand up to them."
Mr Cameron was making a simple point. Liberal societies must, when possible, stand up for liberal values and not hide behind cultural exceptionalism in order to avoid doing so. This would entail that abiding by liberal values at home and ignoring them abroad is sheer duplicity. It is all the more so in the Libyan case in that Col Qaddafi's foes and the Arab League have endorsed a no-fly zone, and some Arab states, especially Egypt, might be willing to engage in preventive military action to avoid a flood of refugees. And if there is one man whose removal most Arabs would relish, it is the Libyan leader.
Whatever the outcome in Libya - a Qaddafi-led massacre or a debilitating and bloody stalemate - it will almost certainly reopen the exchange on humanitarian intervention. Quite possibly, it will also again challenge the reluctance in the West to deploy soldiers to foreign countries without first obtaining widespread consent. The purpose of international law is not to neuter those who respect its principles when they confront those who reject them. Libya may prove even more damaging to the western sense of righteousness than Iraq was.
Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle
Updated: March 17, 2011 04:00 AM