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The failure of deterrence and signaling in Libya

April 12, 2011

Many of the arguments about Libya have concerned the necessity of sending the proper signals to the wider region and world. One of the arguments that seemed the most appealing, as I addressed here and Daniel Larison wrote on more recently, has been the notion that Libya sets a precedent to deter dictators who might want to suppress their own populations.

As should be obviously clear, the degree of repression which the architects of the Libyan intervention hoped to prevent in other Middle Eastern countries has ratcheted up in Syria. Assad’s suppression of protests, which had already intensified during the early days of the intervention (one whose kinetic activity was supposed to last mere days, not weeks), has now brought the army to bear against Syrian protesters. Essentially, where protests are gaining critical mass, dictators are responding with military means. The exception, perhaps, is Yemen, which, while still violent, has required additional US crisis management – and the endgame is still far from clear.

The exact limits, prudence, and attention to local detail that advocates of the Libyan intervention say justified military action and the moral inconsistency of the Libyan intervention is precisely why the same action fails to deter dictators. Certainly Gbagbo did not eschew armed conflict, and required a separate intervention to bring about his downfall. Because local conditions and local political concerns rule in questions of regime survival, dictators can be very confident that intervention in Libya will not harm them. Taking a stand for a norm or a precedent is hardly the same as credibly enforcing it.

The West cannot deter dictators if it does not signal that crossing some red line, presumably involving Responsibility to Protect, will entail military action. This would mean threatening or strongly implying the threat of military action in whatever countries we hoped to deter, even if we did not actually want to intervene. However, the West’s political messaging to the UN and its own populations has been precisely the opposite: that our intervention is limited, constrained by international institutions and requires both domestic and international legitimation even if Western policymakers deem a country’s local geopolitical specifics are conducive to successful intervention. In other words, because we are quite clearly signaling an unwillingness to intervene more frequently or broadly, we are not deterring anybody. With each intervention we undertake, we arguably weaken the credibility of our deterrent, since it ties up more time and effort.

If anything, the intervention in Libya has merely added another data point in the calculus of dictators and unfriendly regimes which hope to deter Western intervention. A country which cooperated with the West on counter-terrorism issues, gave up its WMD program, and increased trade with the Western world suffered military intervention for violently suppressing its own people. However, many countries do the same thing, but Libya was uniquely vulnerable and susceptible to Western military intervention.

Is the solution not to suppress your protesters? Well, sure, one can do that, but if you are a dictator you can never know when that time might come. The most obvious thing to do would not be to comply to a norm the US will only enforce selectively, but to build up your own defenses and cultivate stronger ties with other great powers which might support your case in the geopolitical arena in general and the United Nations in particular. Dictators in the spheres of influence of another great power probably do not need to worry. However, for extra insurance, countries fearful of US intervention would do well to acquire nuclear weapons. After all, as Patrick Porter points out here, the US has never risked a war of choice against a known nuclear power, and allows known nuclear powers to get away with attacking their neighbors, undermining US security objectives in other areas, and generally not playing by an international humanitarian rules.

Rather than encouraging foreign dictators to shape up and reform and deterring violation of international human rights, we are probably encouraging them to further insulate themselves against foreign intervention. After all, the overall benefits of and the political case for intervention are very sensitive to the practicality and legitimacy of an intervention. The costs of failing to suppress one’s revolutionary population, however, are quite high if you are a dictator. Courting Russia or China or acquiring a nuclear weapon are probably much more attractive to paranoid dictators than undertaking the long and uncertain process of reforms, particularly when the US spends so much of its time trying to explain to its own population and the international community it is not about to embark on an international crusade.

Libya is yet another warning to policymakers that the signal we intend to send is not always the one the target audience ultimately receives.

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