31st Mar 2023


Why Western military interventions remain necessary

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Since the Afghanistan debacle, more and more analysts have raised their voices against interventions by the West. According to some, the West should only intervene militarily when self-interest is at stake and if there is no alternative.

For example, many believe that the intervention in Libya was a mistake. That its late leader Muammar Gaddafi would still be in power would not matter to our interest. In other words, they believe that doing nothing is usually better than doing something.

Read and decide

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Let me first zoom in on Libya. Following Tunisia and Egypt, Libyans took to the streets for the first time on 17 February 2011 to demand the end of the Gaddafi regime, which had been a reign of terror since 1969.

That happened first in Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, which then had a population of about 630,000. In March 2011, Gaddafi's army marched with a huge force to Benghazi to, as the "Brotherly Leader and Guide" announced, nip all resistance in the bud, "from house to house, alley to alley".

No one doubted that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people would be killed. A genocide 10, maybe 50 times bigger than Srebrenica was about to happen.

It was the Libyans themselves, especially the future prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, who first convinced the European Parliament, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and finally US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to try to stop this massacre.

When the planes took off from France to Libya on 17 March, the Libyan army was literally already at the gates of Benghazi.

A massive massacre had been avoided, thanks to the Libyan opposition and Nato.

Libyan chaos

The opponents of the Nato intervention find their arguments in the chaos and war that Libya has known since. It is, of course, true that the situation in the country is terrible and has also led to the migration of many tens of thousands of people to Europe.

However, things could have turned out differently if the European countries had opted for a long-term vision and supported the Libyans in their democratic transition.

Knowing their limitations, the Libyans asked for help from Europe many times. No financial support, but help with border controls, help with political organisation, and support to help resolve the political conflict that was bubbling up partly due to the influence of various Gulf countries.

Unfortunately, Europe was too divided to meet those demands. France and Italy, in particular, had been battling each other for years to reap Libya's huge oil profits, instead of seeking solutions to a war in the making.

It is through this short-term thinking that Libya has been bogged down in chaos. We intervened and then looked away.

We let the Gulf States, Turkey, Russia, and all kinds of militias take over the country, while Europe limited itself to sham measures against the refugee flows, which just kept coming.

The fact that today, after seven years, there is finally a government of national unity again, with coming elections, is due to an initiative by Germany, which brought all parties around the table on behalf of the European Union and the United Nations.

If Europe is united, and has the political will to do something, rather than nothing, it can put even a derailed country like Libya back on track.

The cost of doing nothing

Is doing nothing, rather than something, usually the better choice?

It is true that the consequences of doing nothing are more difficult to estimate. Yet in some cases it is very clear.

When French and Belgian soldiers decided to leave Rwanda in April 1994, instead of asking for a larger force, it led to a genocide that killed more than 1 million people. An enormous human cost of doing nothing, of which many are rightly ashamed to this day.

The cost of doing nothing in Syria is also clear, to a certain extent. When the regime of president Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in the summer of 2013, crossing US president Barack Obama's so-called red line, everyone expected a military intervention.

At that time, the Assad regime was on the verge of faltering, and the Islamic State in Syria was virtually non-existent.

The fact that Obama decided at the last minute not to intervene had and still has enormous consequences.

The Western-backed rebel army, the only group to resist jihadist militias, disintegrated. Assad felt untouchable and continued killing with even less scruples than before. The death toll has long passed the half-million mark.

Suddenly Syria became our problem. The chaos was exactly what the Islamic State needed to create a barbaric caliphate from scratch.

This hell on earth made millions of people flee in 2014 and 2015, to neighbouring countries, but also to Europe and created our so-called refugee crisis.

But it is also the same Islamic State that carried out attacks in Brussels, Paris, and many other EU cities.

So even though the announced intervention in Syria in 2013 did not seem in our best interest, the consequences of doing nothing have smashed back into our faces like a boomerang. That is why we had to intervene militarily a little later.

Is anyone still claiming today that we should not have fought the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq?

Few today still defend the US military intervention in Iraq. Rightly so. It comes down to doing the right intervention at the right place at the right time.

Wrong intentions and a shocking lack of knowledge about the country and the region turned the war in Iraq into a drama that will reverberate for years to come. Afghanistan seems to be going the same way.

But to reject any humanitarian, military intervention for that reason is not only problematic from an ethical point of view. It also shows a lack of long-term thinking about what is ultimately in our European self-interest.


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