Obama’s wars


The ethics, legality and politics surrounding armed intervention for humanitarian purposes have proved to be among the key theoretical and practical controversies facing governments in the past few decades.

At the end of the twentieth century, a number of names: Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo were catchy words in the international milieu of diplomacy. In the millennium, the problem is far from abating. This research is an in-depth analysis of the latest controversies in the international scene regarding international relations and humanitarian interventions with reference to the Libyan unrest.

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The research starts with an exploration of the situation on the ground as of March 19. Thereafter, realism theory of international relations is explained as the most appropriate theory that applies to the Libyan case. Later, humanitarian intervention is discussed, especially concerning its legality. Finally, a conclusion, which is a recap of the thesis developed in the paper, is restated.


Political change in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt aided in bringing ensuing Libya reform debates to a climax in January and early February 2011. In the preceding years, leading Libyans had staked out a wide array of positions about the needed extent and pace of reform.

The moves were facilitated by competition for influence and opportunity under the observant eye of the hard-liners affiliated to the enigmatic leader of Libya’s 1969 revolution, Muammar al Qadhafi. Qhadafi has, for a long time insisted that he holds no official government position (Blanchard, 2011).

However, by all means, he maintained his hold on critical authority until of late as the ‘reference point’ for Libya’s multifaceted political structure. In contrast, that system cited ‘popular authority’, as its fundamental principle and organizing concept while at the same denying Libyans the most crucial political rights.

Tribal relations and political dynamics especially eastern regional resentments also influenced Libyan politics. Through an in-depth review on a number of literatures on international relations theory and humanitarian intervention, this research paper finds that Qadhafi and the opposition groups were justified in their attacks to further their individual interest. At the same time, the paper also holds that the U.S. and NATO were justified in their intervention, in the Libyan unrest.

Situation on the ground in Libya as at 19 March 2011

The present crisis in Libya began in mid-February 2011. It was triggered by several events in Benghazi and other eastern cities that hurriedly got out of Qhadafi’s power. Libyan opposition groups had called for a ‘day of rage’ on February 17. This was meant as tribute to protests that took place in the past five years.

Nevertheless, local protests had broken before the scheduled national protests. On February 15 and 16, Libyan authorities deployed force to contain small protests (Blanchard, 2011). The authorities demanded that police had to release a lawful advocate for victims of a past crackdown who had been arrested. During the incident, several protesters were killed. During the funeral of the protesters, conflicts arose when government authorities reportedly fired live ammo.

The Qhadafi government loosened its stand on Weapons of Mass Destruction and terrorism. This led to the lifting of most international sanctions between 2003 and 2004. This was followed by economic growth due to increased sales in oil. The U.S. business rejuvenated amidst ensued U.S.-Libyan tension over terrorism concerns.

The latter were resolved in 2008. During this time of international reengagement, political change in Libya remained indefinable and deceptive. Some observers posited that Qhadafi enthusiasts’ suppression of the opposition had faded. This is because Libya’s international rehabilitation coincided with endeavors by some pragmatists to maneuver within ‘red lines’ (Blanchard, 2011).

The shifting direction of those red lines had been progressively entangling reformers in the events preceding the eruption of the fresh unrest that saw the ousting of Qhadafi. Some observers also welcomed government reconciliation with imprisoned Islamist militants, as well as the return of some exiled opposition figures.

The government was inactive to calls for guarantees of fundamental political rights and the drafting of the new constitution. These calls hinted to a lack of consensus or outright opposition to significant reforms among leading officials (Blanchard, 2011).

In the ensuing chaos, Libyan security forces reportedly opened fire with heavy weaponry on protesters. In addition, opposing groups directly confronted armed personnel as they overran a number of security facilities. There was a looming popular control over eastern cities while considerable

unrest ensued in other regions. Many military officers and their units, as well as civilian officials, left Qhadafi due to the then disorganized and vague opposition. On the other hand, Qhadafi and his supporters denounced their opponents as terrorists. Nevertheless, Qhadafi maintained control over the capital, Tripoli, amidst an international outcry. His presence was also felt in other cities courtesy of family-led security forces and regime supporters (Blanchard, 2011).

On March 17, the Security Council Resolution 1973 was adopted. The move was met with ecstasy by the ensuing opposition in Libya. This was in spite of the their grim security situation, as well as clear inability to separately fend off better organized ground forces faithful to Muammar al Qadhafi. Between March 10 and March 17, there was a reversal in the opposition’s fortunes and a dramatic shift in vigor in favor of Qadhafi (Blanchard, 2011).

This increased regional and international deliberations on potential intervention. At the same time, limited air operations by Qadhafi supporters ensued while the Colonel’s forces commenced an assault on the main opposition base in Benghazi. The no-fly and civilian protection provisions of the Resolution 1973 authorized military intervention. This move had been eagerly anticipated by the careworn opposition in order to ease the pressure on their ranks.

On March 18, the U.S. President Obama drew invariable demands to Qadhafi and his government to end violence. He indicated that the U.S. was ready to act militarily as part of a coalition to implement Resolution 1973 hence protecting Libyan civilians. In response, Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa stated that Qadhafi’s government had been forced to accept the Security Council resolution that allowed the use of force to protect the civilian population.

He also said that Libya’s government had agreed to an urgent armistice and the stoppage of all armed operations. Despite Kusa’s claim, Libyan military ground operations held areas continued against violation of cease-fire pledges. As such, humanitarian intervention began on March 19 (Blanchard, 2011).

The days following March 19 were characterized by sea-launched cruise missile attacks and air strikes targeting Libyan air defenses, air forces, command and control infrastructure, and ground forces engaged in attacks on civilians. These attacks also covered south of the opposition, which is the stronghold of Benghazi.

By March 28, U.S and coalition officials reported that coalition military operations had destroyed the ability of Libyan military to control Libyan airspace. The no-fly zone called for in Resolution 1973 had been implemented. Coalition attacks went on against those supporters of operations by Libyan military units. In addition, coalition officials continued to reiterate their calls for Libyan government forces to surrender amidst missile and air strikes of relentless frequency and intensity.

On a weekend in March 26, opposition forces rejuvenated their moves westward in line with coalition air strikes against Libyan government forces in Ajdabiyah. They captured the coastal cities of Burayqah and Ra’s Lanuf.

The operations were described by press reports and U.S. military briefings as operations of relatively lightly armed and disorganized volunteer opposition forces that had surged westward from their initially threatened bases in eastern Libya. The new operations extended to cover areas they originally controlled such as the city of Sirte, which is the birthplace of Muammar al Qadhafi (Blanchard, 2011).

It was reported that government forces prepared an organized defense of Sirte with reports suggesting that pro-Qadhafi forces continued to focus on civilians and opposition volunteers in certain urban regions such as Misurata and Az Zintan. Despite of these records, there were no accurate and veritable information sources on the strength, leadership, equipment and preparedness of pro and anti-Qadhafi forces available to the public in the early phases of the ensuing unrests.

The rapid developments and the relatively limited presence of international media in Libya saw the imposition of a degree of uncertainty on the latest twists of the conflict drama. Many questions on identities, capabilities, and goals of key players and forces went unanswered in the wake of ongoing coalition operations. Optimistic observers who eagerly waited for the backed up opposition to outdo Qadhafi and his supporters continued to face blows (Blanchard, 2011).

As a result, some even warned of a looming civil war. Despite this pessimism, spokespersons from both sides continued to express optimism in their ability to prevail. Observers from the outside presupposed that air strikes were creating strong disincentives to continued loyalty to Qadhafi. According to opposition leaders, the latent advantages of foreign military intervention could be considered alongside a positive reception of strong nationalist, anti-imperialist sentiments held by many Libyans.

U.S. and Coalition military operations in Libya

U.S. civilian and military leaders, including President Barack Obama termed the U.S and coalition military operations as successfully having achieved limited military goals in support of Resolution 1973. The President insisted that he did not plan to order the use of military force to achieve the political aim of removing Qadhafi from power.

On March 25, U.S. Joint Staff Director Admiral Bill Gortney said that due to the coalition military strikes, Qadhafi lacked defense, hence harbored a declining ability to command and sustain his forces on the ground. His air force could not fly; his warships were stranded in port, while his ammunition was being destroyed (Blanchard, 2011).

In addition, communication towers were being toppled, and his command bunkers rendered useless. On March 28, Gortney updated his assessment by adding that coalition forces had struck the headquarters of the 32nd Brigade regime security unit, which has been under the control of Qadhafi’s son Khamis.

This happened because the unit remained at the vanguard operations against civilians. He also showed that the coalition had struck command and control targets around Qadhafi’s support base, Sirte, on Libya’s central coast. On March 29, coalition strikes allegedly targeted Libyan naval vessels off the coast of Misurata (Carlsnaes, & Simmons, 2002).

The preceding section has discussed the condition of Libya as of March 29. It is time this paper gives the Libyan unrest a critical international perspective. While crucial questions went unanswered about the latent success of the opposition counteroffensive, The Libyan unrest led to a heated debate as far as international relations is concerned.

A number of theories can explain the unrest, which saw the introduction of human rescue intervention. The focus of this paper now shifts to address the different theories that explain international relations. However, by the end of the discussion, the paper will choose one of the theories that can best describe the Libya unrest and the consequential coalition forces intervention.

International relations theories

There are many theories, approaches and models that political scientists have used when researching on international relations. A brief paper cannot do justice to the whole collection of theoretical approaches entrenched in the modern literature. However, this paper will choose only the most relevant ones to the Libyan case. Nevertheless, those elaborated here, coupled with occasional citations of some representative works may prove beneficial to diplomatic historians.


The first theory to be discussed here is realism. This theory has been the most popular approach to international relations for the last few decades. This is because it was perceived to offer a significant structure for comprehending the fall of the events that succeeded the First World War.

Nevertheless, realists do not comprise a uniform school- at least, not for the moment (Donnely, 2000). This, however, does not mean that they do not share some common beliefs about international relations. To be precise, they hold to five basic beliefs on international relations. The first belief is that the causes and conditions of war are extremely instrumental in international relations. Secondly, they consider the framework of an international system as highly essential.

Realists believe that the lack of a central authority to settle disputes is the salient feature of the contemporary system. This causes the security dilemma. This implies that in a self-help system, a nation’s search for security usually leaves all others in the system ultimately insecure.

This, then, provides a strong incentive for arms race and other kinds of hostile interactions. As such, realists perceive conflict as a natural state of affairs instead of a consequence that can be tied to historical conditions, bad leaders, faulty sociopolitical systems or insufficient international understanding or education (Genest, 2008).

The third belief that realists hold to is that geographical-based groups are the main actors in the international system. Fourthly, realism accepts that state behavior is based on reason.

This belief assumes that states are controlled by the logic of the national interest. The latter is identified in terms of survival, security, power and relative capabilities. National interest fluctuates concerning precise conditions (Donnely, 2000). Nevertheless, the similarity of aims among nations allows the analyst to model the logic of policymakers in their chase of national interests.

Lastly, realists believe that the sate can be perceived as a unitary factor (Genest, 2008). Since the core problems for states are clearly defined by the form of the international system, their actions are a response to external, instead of internal political forces. As one of the realists Stephen Krasner, supposes, the state can be regarded as an independent actor pursuing motives linked to power and the general interest of the society.

Realism has mainly been based on a pessimistic theory of human nature either psychologically or secularly. Egoism and self-interest conduct are not restricted to a few or misguided leaders. They are fundamental to homo politicus, hence, are at the center of a realist theory (Donnely, 2000).

Since the human nature is constant, this theory is inadequate to explain the full range of international relations. This is because human nature explains war and conflict but leaves peace and cooperation unaccounted. As such, modern realists have changed their focus from human nature to the structure of the international system in order to elaborate state behavior (Genest, 2008).

The theory has also been criticized due to its lack of precision, as well as the contradicting manner in which classical realists make use of terms such as power, balance of power, and national interest.

While nations and their leaders reflect and act accordance to interests defined as power (Carlsnaes, & Simmons, 2002), political leaders are urged to exercise discretion and moderation alongside recognizing legal interests of other nations.

As such, power is crucial in classical realism though the relation between virtual power balances and political consequences is usually less than persuasive. This suggests that there is a need to deepen analyses with other variables.

Political culture

The second theory that will be discussed here is political culture. Although its antecedents are dated back to the origins of political science, political culture theory in its present form and version came out of the fall of Weimer democracy and the rise of Nazism.

The theory holds that political culture is the set of subjective orientations to politics in a national population, or a sub-set of a national population. It goes ahead to suppose that political culture has cognitive, effective and evaluative components. This implies that it includes knowledge and beliefs about political reality, feelings regarding politics and commitments to political values (Holsti, 2008).

The content of political culture is the result of childhood socialization, education, media experience and adult experiences with governmental, social and economic performance. The theory holds that political culture influences political and governmental structure and performance. It constraints it but does not determine it.

Generally, political culture theory makes experiential sense out of the French Revolution’s claim that sovereignty is derived from the society rather than the state. As such, there is a presupposition that while states are concerned about power, societies believe in the sense and the response of power. This was remedied later by Michel Foucault, among others, who declared that the society is the true locus of power (Carlsnaes, & Simmons, 2002).

International political culture is fundamentally a multifaceted set of rules about the circumstances for valid rule and international activities. The culture of rulers or governments is viewed as the strong actors in the international system (Holsti, 2008). Political culture legalizes the authority of those seemed to be strong or effectual. It also aids to constitute the conditions for efficacy.

This is because it is via cultural exchanges that human beings recognize and understand experiences concerning the exercise of authority, coming up with propositions about the causes of triumph or failure that may then become reverencing points in the days to come (Genest, 2008).

An international system may show many forms of political legitimacy. Nevertheless, there will always be a common feature whereby ability to rule and to accomplish the external reactions is accepted by other rulers.

This implies that mutual recognition is a fundamental characteristic of sovereignty (Donnely, 2000). Even worldwide political structures have a political culture spelling out the requirements for being considered a lawful actor in the structure. The existence of an overriding form of legal influence, therefore, shows the presence of supremacy in the system.

Liberal theory

The third theory of international theory under discussion in this paper is liberalism. The basic belief shared by all Liberals is that states are entrenched in internal and external civil society.

As such, they are decisively constrained in their endeavors. This belief is divided into three assumptions providing logical micro-foundational assumptions on key players, their motivations, and the problems they encounter (Carlsnaes, & Simmons, 2002).

Many hypotheses can be derived from these suppositions, including assumptions about the effects of democracy, nationalism, social inequality, commerce and international institutions on the world of politics. The scope of this paper is limited to explaining the central assumptions of liberal theory.

As hinted earlier, the major presuppositions of the liberal theory is that the main players in politics are members of domestic society. These actors are understood individually or privately constituted groups in the endeavor to enhance their personal interests.

Under precise circumstances of social fragmentations, personal independence and limited competition, individual conduct may be tapped in ways that enhance social order and the progressive improvement of individual welfare (Holsti, 2008). This theory holds that politics is entrenched in a social context, which decisively limits the functions and possibilities of government. The society comes before the state, and internal state-society relations make up the core issue of politics.

According to Liberals, society comprises of personal, human agents with independent interests and identities seeking to form private groups, organizations and preparations to progress their social and political goals. It follows suit that social and political order emanates from the resultant interactions of such individuals, often acting without a conscious format.

The first assumption of the liberal theory leads to three fundamental implications. The first of these is that the most basic determinants of politics lie in society itself. As such, private individuals autonomously calculate individual benefits and losses from foreign policy, popular support for foreign policy incentives, for governmental institutions and, of course, for the survival of the state itself. All these rely mainly on the specific nature of private preferences and their relation to the international niche (Genest, 2008).

The second implication of the first assumption of the liberal theory is that potential for social order and advancement can be realized only via institutions that direct private incentives towards social goals of wealth and security.

The third and last implication of the first assumption of liberalism is that although it assumes conflict, liberalism is a meliorist principle that accepts the likelihood of evolutionary, social growth. Liberals, therefore, believe that under minimal regulation of individual rights, and controlled competition, political and socioeconomic growth towards greater wealth and security is a possibility (Carlsnaes, & Simmons, 2002).

The second main assumption of Liberalism as an international relations theory is that all governments are a representative of some section of domestic society whose interests are found in state rule.

Basing their arguments on the assumption that society comes before the state, liberalism gives a central place to the domestic institutions that link state and society. Liberals view these institutions as the basic mechanisms by which social interests are represented. The state is presupposed to be representative of a section of social groups, even though not all governments represent the whole population.

According to liberalism, the basic relationship between the population and the state is, therefore, a core issue. The third and last assumption of Liberalism is that the behavior of states based on levels of international collaboration reflects the nature and pattern of state preferences. As such, liberals believe that it is state purpose, not state power, which is the most essential ingredient of world politics (Hensel, 2005).

Realism and Libyan unrest

Among all the theories that have been discussed in this paper the theory that best suits the Libyan unrest is realism. This statement can be supported using the fundamentals of the theory. To begin holds that with, the theory, as noted earlier, holds that the deficiency of an essential authority to resolve conflicts is the salient feature of the modern system (Genest, 2008).

In Libya, the unrest was fuelled by the ousting of Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi from power by oppositional groups based in Benghazi. This meant that there was no central authority to settle the disputes that ensued. The Qaddafi supporters and opposition groups continued to clash while civilians suffered in the fire exchanges.

Another reason why realism is the most appropriate theory to explain the Libyan unrest is that the theory holds conflicts are a natural state of affairs instead of a consequence that can be tied to historical conditions, bad leaders, faulty sociopolitical systems or insufficient international understanding or education.

This makes Qaddafi and his supporters justified in their persistent attacks. The Libyan unrest would have been destined to last for long because realism holds that state behavior is based on reason (Hensel, 2005). This belief assumes that states are controlled by the logic of the national interest.

The latter is identified in terms of endurance, safety, power and virtual capabilities. National interest fluctuates concerning precise conditions. Going by this belief, Qaddafi had enough interest to continue clinging to power. The opposition groups were also justified in their attacks, as it was in the national interests that the Qaddafi regime ended as it had done more harm than good.

Humanitarian intervention

The years succeeding the Cold War saw an increase in debate on human rights. This coincided with a growing tendency to see a relationship between violations of human rights and international security. Many changes in international relations since the end of the Cold War have augmented the likelihood of intervention with or without UN Security Council authorization (Coady, 2005).

As such, discussions on humanitarian intervention have been reheated. The way in which the phenomenon of humanitarian intervention is viewed has changed drastically to match with the ever-changing international scene. The focus of this research now shifts to humanitarian intervention and its relationship with international relations.

The concept of humanitarian intervention is linked to other fields like international law, political science, morality and international relations. This is the reason the term is bound to have many definitions and categorizations. According to Adam Roberts, humanitarian intervention is a military intrusion in a state, without the endorsement of its system, and with the aim of preventing far-reaching affliction or death among the population (Roberts, 2003).

Other scholars view the concept as a military intrusion with the aim of defending the lives and wellbeing of overseas civilians. Although these definitions are just a representative of the many definitions that exist for the humanitarian intervention concept, there are several points to note from it.

To begin with, humanitarian intervention uses military force. This is because the parties at war may cause violations, hence the need for a military participation. Another point to note from the definition is that there is an absence of the targeted state’s authorization.

Essentially, this is the central point that makes it a humanitarian intervention, hence differentiating it from peacekeeping. This intervention is usually carried out in scenarios of gross violations caused by the state itself or the state’s collapse. In such extreme circumstances, there is no powerful authority like the case of Somalia (Holzgrefe & Keohane, 2003).

Another characteristic of humanitarian intervention is that it is aimed at aiding non-nationals. In addition, their agency of intervention is usually the UN. After looking at the basic constituents of a humanitarian intervention, it is possible to put down an inclusive definition of humanitarian intervention.

It can be defined as the forcible action by states to prevent or to end gross violations of human rights on behalf of people other than their own nationals, using armed force without the consent of the target government and with or without UN authorization (Welsh, 2004).

This paper hinted earlier that the concept of humanitarian intervention has become controversial by each passing day, a phenomenon occasioned by the dynamic international milieu. This statement draws the focus of this research to the section in which the legality of humanitarian intervention will be examined.

Everyone is obliged to obey the law. The point of disagreement is not obedience but the sources and constituents of law. According to Article 38(I) of the statute of the International Court of Justice, international norms are lawfully binding if they are entrenched in international conventions or international custom. Although this Statute technically binds on the International Court of Justice, it is the broadly accepted authoritative statement of the sources of international law (Holzgrefe & Keohane, 2003).

There are a number of examples of human intervention during and after the Cold War. These include the intervention of India into East Pakistan, Tanzania into Uganda and Vietnam into Kampuchea.

The Indian military intervention in 1971 into East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh) ended the Pakistani government’s brutal killings of Bengali people (Gannon, 2011). The Ugandan case was characterized by Idi Amin’s eight years of brutal dictatorship, which featured gross violation of human rights. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed (Welsh, 2004).

Tanzania was forced to breach one of the main values of the African Union of no- interference. Interventions after the Cold War include military intervention in Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. Non-interventions include Rwanda and Srebrenica. In the first case, an intervention would have been important to stop the genocide while, in the latter, it would have been appropriate in protecting basic human rights. This inaction greatly undermined the UN’s authority (Gannon, 2011).


In conclusion, human intervention will remain a controversial and hotly debated topic in the milieu of international relations. Nevertheless, it is clear that military intervention in sovereign states where gross violations of human rights take place is lawful and acceptable under international law.

This is despite the fact that international relations theories like realism may support unrests like the Libyan case, which lead to theses violations. However, the constituents of gross violations of human rights will continue to be debated. As such, this essay supports humanitarian intervention in Libya.

This is because based on the empirical records provided on the outset of this paper, such intervention is permissible with or without Security Council authorization even though in the Libyan case, the UN had authorized the intervention through Resolution 1973. In addition, the move is also justified by the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ report adopted by the UN legalizes military intervention on a humanitarian basis.


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Carlsnaes, W. & Simmons, B.A. (2002). Handbook of international relations. New York: Sage Publishing.

Coady, C.A.J. (2005). United States Institute of Peace. “The ethics of armed humanitarian intervention”, retrieved on October 8, 2011 from http://www.usip.org/files/resources/pwks45.pdf

Donnely, J. (2000).” Realism and international relations “. Retrieved on October 8, 2011 from http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99053676.pdf

Gannon, J. (2011). Obama’s War’s: Avoiding a quagmire in Afghanistan. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc.

Genest, M.A. (2008). Conflict and cooperation: Evolving theories of international relations. New York: Harcourt Brace

Hensel, H.M. (2005). The law of armed conflict. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Holsti, O.R. (2008). “Theories of international relations”. Retrieved on October 8, 2011 from http://www.duke.edu/~pfeaver/holsti.pdf

Holzgrefe, J. L. & Keohane, R.O. (2003). Humanitarian Intervention; ethical, legal and political dilemmas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Roberts, A. (2003). “The road to hell: a critique of humanitarian intervention.” Harvard International Review 16, no. 1: 10–13, 63.

Welsh, J.M. (2004). Humanitarian intervention and international relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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