Strategic Ambiguity and Libya

Strategic Ambiguity and Libya

Many commentators have discussed the “strategic ambiguity” — undoubtably purposeful — of the Security Council’s resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya.  The resolution speaks of protection of civilians, but nowhere nails down the following, among many other issues:

  • Is regime change a lawful policy as the means to protection of civilians?  There is little question that the Obama administration believes that it is the preferred outcome, but is that built into the terms of the SC resolution?  Alternatively, does the resolution permit only narrow actions either in defense of civilians coming under direct attack?
  • Are the civilians only those who are genuinely non-combatants, or does it include, as has been suggested, even those civilians who have taken up arms in rebellion?  Meaning, does it include fighters who take part in hostilities but who are, under current rubrics in the law of armed conflict, regarded by many as still “civilians” even if targetable by opposing forces on account of their participation?
  • Does the US remain committed to its Kosovo-era view that Security Council authorization for humanitarian intervention might be a good idea or legitimizing or diplomatically useful — but not a legal necessity?  Or has it by implication, and by the decidedly expansive language of its diplomats, accepted — or at least significantly furthered — the idea that only the Security Council can authorize such expeditions.  This was, after all, what the 2005 UN reform Final Outcome document — a General Assembly resolution, but one with greater diplomatic weight than most, because of its connection to a larger UN reform debate — said about the much-debated Responsibility to Protect, that it required Security Council authorization.

The fundamental fudge in all of this debate arises over the meaning of “humanitarian” action in relation to the use of force.  It might have a broad meaning that endorses, in this particular instance, regime change as the only way to achieve the humanitarian outcome — in other words, taking sides in the war, but without openly acknowledging it.  Or it might have a narrow meaning (or several potential narrow meanings) that limits intervention to “neutral” humanitarian activities.  Ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid might be one such activity, even if it means using force; but the activity itself does not take sides and remains neutral.  Or it might have a narrow meaning that allows the interventionists to target fighters insofar as they are engaged in unlawful attacks upon civilians; once again, the interventionists are “neutral” and in a role akin to referees to ensure that the fighting sides leave the true non-combatants out of it.

Different parties — read China and Russia and many other countries in the world not present on the Security Council — are able to take the Security Council resolution in any of these or other ways.  It was almost certainly drafted precisely to that ambiguous end.  The upside, of course, is that it provides an avenue by which parties can move forward.  The downside, equally obviously, is that precisely that features that make ambiguity attractive in the short run are the features that cause it to come-a-cropper in the longer run.  A longer run that, in the case of Libya, might turn out to be days or weeks rather than years or decades.

Strategic ambiguity, as I discuss in a certain forthcoming book, is often a bad idea for these reasons, no matter how beloved of diplomats.  It indeed has an honorable, if occasional, place: the fiction of the two Chinas has long been a useful ambiguity, since the alternative might be a truly devastating conflict.  The question is one of judgment as to whether ambiguity lessens or instead stores up greater trouble in the future.


Peter Beinart (whose book I reviewed herecorrectly notes that the foreign policy makers — Samantha Power in the Obama administration, for example, or Bernard Henri-Levy in France — cut their teeth on Bosnia.  They are convinced that the world (meaning the West and, in particular, the hegemon which exists, apparently, to bail out otherwise failed systems of collective security) must act to avoid another Rwanda or Bosnia.  They finally have the war they wanted in lieu of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the war in which the US shows its virtue by having no notable material interests at stake, but only its willingness to shoulder burdens for … Kant.

Liberal internationalist hawks and neocon hawks share hawkishness and willingness to use force, but have a fundamental asymmetry: the liberal internationalists want interventions that lack any obvious US interest (save in some very indirect sense that conflates ideals and interests), in the name of univeralism and virtue; the neocons are willing to act sometimes on account of pure altruism and idealism, but are also quite happy as well to act from interest in the most material and traditional sense.  In any case, what the Power Doctrine sees as universalism in which the chief US virtue is self-abnegation and subordination of its power to more “impartial” and therefore morally superior “universal” organs such as the UN, the neocons (in the neocon heyday, before being Chastened by Events) saw universalism and certain universal values as genuinely morally universal — but also as only capable of being sustained under the umbrella of US hegemony, operating outside of the “universal” UN system of collective security.

The asymmetry has consequences. The Power Doctrine generally seeks to subordinate the US and its power as real power, but within the UN system.  The neocon doctrine says that if the US does not maintain its parallel system of hegemonic security, and worse still seeks to place that power inside the UN, the effect will be at best the fate of collective action games: everyone wants to be just another player while someone else pays all the costs.  A fundamental problem for the Power Doctrine within the administration, after all, is that half of President Obama’s team consists of liberal internationalists eager to preserve American power in order to subordinate it to the will of the international community; while the other half has decided the US can’t really afford the power in the first place, and wants the US to belly up to the multilateralism bar as just another one of the folks in the world, in order to stand down from an unsustainable hegemonic role.  The President, the national master of strategic ambiguity, uses phrases that can go both ways.


That generally describes, in my view, the Obama administration’s preferred approach, as well as going a long way to explaining its paralysis.  As I said in an earlier post on the Security Council, however, I don’t actually believe that its current Libya strategy is actually evidence of this; its Libya strategy today is not the failure of the hegemon to take its responsibilities seriously (though its delay and uncertainty at the beginning likely were), but instead one of the relatively rare instances in which the Security Council can act as the “concert of the nations” in which it is not actually necessary for the US to be the leader.  It is peculiar for me to be saying that the Obama administration in its actions today, holding back from a public leadership role, is acting prudently insofar as it is prudent to get involved at all; but given that there are few US interests at stake, others quite willing to lead, no obvious exit if one decides to lead, then … let the concert do it, or not.

I think that the Obama administration’s ceding of the leadership of this to others is quite rational and persuasive, because it means that the US is not stuck when everyone else leaves.  Nor do I think that this demonstrates what, true, I have often warned against — the US giving up its global responsibilities as the hegemon and showing itself the weak horse to others — because I think that the rest of the world understands perfectly that the US does not see this as particularly important to it, and that it is right to do so.  There are not many times when the Security Council can organize a functioning concert of nations, even for a short expedition; this seems to be one of them, and it saves the US a lot of difficulty so … let the concert do it.


Yet the ambiguities that were forced by practicalities into the wording of the legitimizing Security Council resolution must leave one to wonder where this coalition is headed regarding the very meaning of humanitarian action.  After all, the greatest defect of Bosnian policy, in the eyes of today’s liberal internationalist hawk interventionists, was that for the longest time it sought to use force merely to play referee.  Moreover, in Bosnia, the world community (whatever, as David Rieff has said, that weird reification might be) did something that quite possibly (given the decision by the administratin to seek wide consensus before acting and so using up precious time on the fighting ground) might happen in Libya — freeze the civil war in place.  Perhaps with the kind of on-going slaughter that characterized Bosnia for years, perhaps not.   It is inconceivable that Samantha Power has not thought long and hard about these obvious defects in the international community’s response in Bosnia; it therefore would seem that the current policy of ambiguity is not by accident, but exists deliberately to supply the fig leaf of not taking sides … while taking sides.

Whether that is a workable fudge or not, or whether it is a good idea or not, I won’t address here.  But it is important to understand that the strategic ambiguity around the definition of humanitarian action itself has important and possibly very bad consequences for undertaking genuinely neutral humanitarian activities, of the kind that genuinely neutral monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross undertake.  After all, if one says that “we are not taking sides,” but instead are merely protecting civilians for humanitarian reasons — while, in actual fact, taking sides and aiming at regime change, that deliberately strategic obscuring of what is “neutral humanitarianism” and what is “taking sides” cannot be good for the genuinely neutral humanitarian actors.  In my estimation it makes the pursuit of genuinely neutral humanitarian action more difficult and dangerous down the road.  (I discuss this question in this article.)  It seems to me that these kinds of fudges make the work of the independent aid workers more fraught, not less.


But we might then ask, why justify a policy that necessarily involves taking sides — regime change  (even if it is, as certainly I believe, the only policy that has the possibility of ending mass atrocities against civilians in Libya) — by reach to humanitarianism in a way that implies, at least, that one is “neutral” and merely in favor of the “civilians”?  The reason, of course, is that the appeal to this “neutral” humanitarianism, real or faux, is understood to increase the legitimacy of the action.  Why?  Because it attaches a label of universal morality to the act; it is not partial, it is impartial, universalist, and, because it is in the interest of the “uninvolved” civilians, nothing that anyone could rationally or morally dispute.

I discuss the conceptual and practical problems with this view in the article above.  But note as well that the moral-legal-political positions, among which coalition members seem to be vacillating, begin from a familiar starting place.  Familiar but, in my view, quite wrong.  It is that the highest moral position in debating the use of force, armed conflict, etc., is the standpoint of the humanitarian, and finally that of the humanitarian neutral, standing above all the partial and bickering and fighting humanity, and offering them succor (and later, through equally neutral and universal tribunals, justice).  The highest moral position, the moral high ground, on this account, is the place above us all looking down, occupied by the humanitarian neutrals, remote angels who do not take sides.

For reasons I argue in the above article as well as in this short book review, “What the Swiss Miss,” this is not right.  The humanitarian neutral is a vital, but morally residual category.  We are not morally saved if everyone is the ICRC and no one is Churchill.  I’ve said this before.  But what has not been said sufficiently, I think, is this.  If we are wrong to treat the humanitarian neutrals as a somehow morally prior category over taking sides against evil, well, we are also wrong to try and take the legitimacy that we have given to humanitarian neutrals, and use it to try and, so to speak, gussy up Churchill by making his explicit and unapologetic taking of sides to be even better than that because it is actually a form of humanitarian neutrality.


(There is an important but largely unexplored theory to be developed here around the question of sides, partiality and impartiality, and the “angelic” point of view, specifically in the ethics of conflict.  Gabriella Blum has started into these areas a matter of ethics and law, but it remains mostly untouched territory.)

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John C. Dehn

Related to the focus here on ambiguity in the “humanitarian” aims of the UNSCR authorization, I recently participated in a symposium at the University of Amsterdam on the responsibility to protect.  My comments there suggested were of the same genre as Ken’s.  The strategic ambiguity so common of UNSCRs is also a common aspect of discussions surrounding the responsibility to protect.  That strategic ambiguity creates even further operational and tactical ambiguity (and associated risk) for those tasked with implementing R2P in humanitarian or peacekeeping operations.  Kenneth here touches on only some of the main operational considerations. 

It is true, though, that ambiguous strategic ends (protecting “civilians,” or perhaps “innocent civilians”) can be constrained by limiting the operational means, such as authorizing “all necessary measures” but “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”  For this reason, the Libya UNSCR would seem to exclude an Iraq-style invasion and “regime change.”  Particularly with modern technology, though, the exclusion of ground forces still leaves still leaves a great many options on the table to securing the strategic end, “protect civilians.”