Steve Saideman wrote a couple of back-to-back tweets this morning about the revelation that NATO airstrikes accidentally caused the deaths of several civilians and, in particular, about the backlash that inevitably follows the release of such news.
Leaving aside the comparison with Afghanistan, which calls up a host of other issues, my sense is that Saideman is clearly right about the substance of his tweet relating to Libya. NATO should do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties, as the justification for intervention was the protection of these same civilians. When NATO fails to take the necessary precautions or by some accident harms civilians, as they did the other day, it’s unequivocal that something terrible has happened. But, as Saideman points out, it’s myopic to claim that the accidental deaths of a group of civilians demonstrates that NATO ought not to have intervened in Libya in the first place.
Now, I suspect that some people will be quick to remind me of the argument that came up back in March, namely that with any intervention, people are going to be killed … and now, lo and behold, people that NATO set out to protect have, in fact, been killed by NATO. This is a fair point, I suppose, but I don’t think it really tells us anything beyond the unfortunate fact that people are bound to be killed when weapons of war are brought to bear. What Saideman points out is that far more civilians would have been killed without the NATO presence in Libya, as that was Gaddafi’s express intention.
Reasonable people certainly disagree about the intervention — and I wrote a lot about such disagreements back in March (here and here, for example) — but I think it’s wrong-headed to say that the intervention is clearly wrong or that it shouldn’t have happened simply because civilians have now been killed as a result of NATO airstrikes.
To make this case would be to imply that Gaddafi’s threats against the populace were not really so serious or that, no matter how many people would have been killed by Gaddafi’s forces, at least the West wouldn’t have been responsible. As I argued in a previous post about Libya and Responsibility to Protect doctrine:
Frankly, if we elected to do nothing — to wait and see, to let things play out — we’re still making a choice. And that choice is that the government of Libya should remain unchanged. But then we would have failed to learn the lesson of Rwanda: a government cannot maintain that it is sovereign when it does not speak for its people and when it sets out to harm them. At such a time, it is incumbent upon the international community to stand with the people against an illegitimate regime, rather than to stand on the sidelines and allow that regime to use all of its resources to crush its citizens.
That was true, I thought, back in March when Gaddafi was making direct threats about killing the citizens of Benghazi and it remains true, I think, even though NATO needs to work harder to ensure that Libyan civilians are being protected, rather than endangered, by their airstrikes.