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Libya: Making the case for humanitarian warfare?

Gandhi and Che, two kinds of freedom fighters

Gandhi and Che, two kinds of freedom fighters

On CNN’s Global Public Square blog, Stewart Patrick writes that the U.S. military’s support of the popular revolution in Libya and its defeat of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi vindicates the Obama Administration’s decision to engage in warfare on humanitarian grounds.

Patrick, who is a senior fellow at Foreign Affairs and director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance for the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that this was the “first unambiguous military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. Writes Patrick:

The fall of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is a significant foreign policy triumph for U.S. President Barack Obama. By setting overall strategy while allowing others to shoulder the burden of implementing it, the Obama administration achieved its short-term objective of stopping Gadhafi’s atrocities and its long-term one of removing him from power. This was all done at a modest financial cost, with no U.S. troops on the ground, and zero U.S. casualties. Meanwhile, as the first unambiguous military enforcement of the Responsibility to Protect norm, Gadhafi’s utter defeat seemingly put new wind in the sails of humanitarian intervention.

I’ve raised this issue a few times on Humanosphere, including this post in mid-March immediately after the Obama Administration decided to intervene. I also noted an argument for intervention by Robert Pape in The Atlantic and later posted on the ongoing and, to me, somewhat confusing debate about what kind of humanitarian crisis justifies military intervention.

Patrick regards the decision to intervene in Libya as a justified but unique exercise of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine — aka, the humanitarian case for warfare. Many will disagree with both characterizations.

As Patrick notes, many will see Libya as a dangerous precedent encouraging “interventionism run amok.” Others, looking at the Syrian government’s ongoing killing of democracy protesters, will see any argument against intervening there as a dangerous ambivalence.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.