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Intervention is more than popping a pill

When the Libyan crisis ends, much later than its stakeholders expect, another crisis will follow - a crisis of faith in the doctrine of armed international intervention. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

columns Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:46 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

When the Libyan crisis ends, much later than its stakeholders expect, another crisis will follow - a crisis of faith in the doctrine of armed international intervention. Libya has raised questions without answers. Is the US at war with it? No, it is just slinging cruise missiles around. That's not making war? No, it is action in support of UN Resolution 1973, which sanctioned the use of air power against Libya. Is that a valid legal document? Not entirely, since France and Britain, which pushed it, were too impatient to answer questions and discuss specifics. Intervention is good, don't you know? Now, let's cut the crap and get on with it, is what they seemed to be saying.

So Vladimir Putin likened Resolution 1973 to preaching a crusade. Five important nations declined to vote on it, so it does not fully reflect the will of the global community. No matter how excrescent Muammar Gaddafi may have become, no matter how valid the demands of the insurrectionists, intervention is raising hackles continent-wide in Africa.

International military intervention is the geopolitical equivalent of emergency surgery, but it has its problems. It may improve your life, but who likes to go under the knife? And there is discomfort because the Western powers are too eager to intervene militarily. It's like pill-popping.

That analogy is really more apt than surgery. Intervention is an over-the-counter remedy. It helps when the global body politic catches a cold but is useless against serious illness. It's easily administered to small neighbourhoods like the Balkans or Libya, but imagine if there was an insurrection in Russia, China or India. Actually, that's already happened in Red Square and Tiananmen Square, and it's not inconceivable in India. Would the Western democracies ever impose no-fly zones over these nuclear powers? Good heavens, no, they want world peace.

So intervention is restricted to small nations. But if they see their peers being routinely hustled into the operation theatre, they would have an incentive to invest in modern military hardware. A new arms race would begin. And let's not believe that small nations cannot arm themselves. Israel and North Korea, located at the very ends of the political spectrum, are positively tiny, but they are rich sources of global violence.

Besides, the doctrine of intervention is not being fairly used. There is a problem if there are foreign warplanes over Libya but not over Bahrain and Yemen, which have similar problems but are friendly with the Western powers. And there is an even bigger problem of inequity if the big powers can veto intervention, as the Russians did over the question of Chechnya, but lesser nations have no control over their destinies in the international domain.

The use of military intervention has accelerated since the end of the Cold War and it is obviously here to stay. But for it to remain effective in resolving intractable problems, it must be seen to be a legal expression of the will of the global community. This is where the resolution on Libya failed. It did not take everyone on board, and those who signed on just popped a pill without thinking too much about it. Because it's good for you, don't you know?

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal