Judging by every leading article in the mainstream British press, only people who spend their afternoons shouting at stray cats would argue that the intervention in Libya was not a success: The brutal Gaddafi regime has fallen, a massacre in Benghazi was avoided, and celebrating Libyans are waving a new colourful flag. Before we get too carried away, however, it is worth considering how successful the Libyan intervention actually was in terms of saving innocent civilians.
With the approval of the UN, a NATO mission led primarily by the British and French enforced a “No Fly Zone” over Libya in March to protect civilians from aggression by their leader, Col. Gaddafi. Over the next months, sections of Libyan society who rebelled against the Gaddafi regime were aided militarily by the West, and succeeded in getting rid of the regime last month. The UN mandate for the intervention ran out on October 31, officially ending the intervention that the General Secretary of NATO called “one of the most successful in NATO history”.
Was it? Leaving aside the potential problems of future democratic transition, the mission in Libya has already highlighted the inefficiency of military intervention as a tool for saving lives. And after all, protecting civilians was the official reason for the intervention, so it is only fair to judge it by that standard.
When the No Fly Zone was enforced, the Chancellor, George Osborne, told the public that the price would be in the tens of millions. Data published by the Guardian confirmed that spending has reached at least £680M, and recent research by Francis Tusa, a defence expert, sets the total cost at £1.75Bn. If this is the price of saving innocent Libyans from an attack that several academics have disputed Gaddafi was capable of launching, then protecting civilians with military force is very expensive indeed. If the West had been concerned with saving innocent lives, had the money not been better spent on vaccines, health clinics, contraception or other such cheap and secure measures? For £6.50 a mosquito net capable of protecting a family of four against malaria for three years can be produced and shipped to where it is most needed.
Not only is military intervention very cost-inefficient, it is also very unsafe. Even the most precise bombs have imprecision margins and cannot erase human mistakes. Any decision to use military force is therefore also a decision to accept inflict civilian casualties – it cannot be avoided. Unexploded bombs effectually become landmines, and arming rebels is a highly uncertain strategy. Recently, Human Rights Watch documented a mass execution of 53 people by rebels, who had tied up militants and civilians before killing them. Many political groups have also refused to hand weapons in after the rebellion, as they are powerful negotiation tools when the constitution is written. This has led to several shootings between rebels groups in airports, hospitals and towns already. So far the National Transition Council has confirmed over 30,000 people dead. Meanwhile, non-violent alternatives were ignored. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat suggested ten options including; industrial pressure, naval blockades, electronic sabotage, and currency boycotts.
We can all be pleased that Gaddafi is gone, but that was never the official objective of the mission. And even if the intervention prevented a massacre in Benghazi, it also demonstrated that military action is an expensive and risky tool for saving lives, which paradoxically involves attacking the people one is trying to protect. If saving lives is NATO’s agenda, they would be better off buying mosquito nets, but it is a military alliance after all, and to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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