Somewhere near Sirte in October 2011, dictator Muammar Gaddafi met his fate. That event seemed to make an end to a successful western-led and UN-endorsed intervention which had aimed to protect the Libyan from a brutal repression and eventually toppled a decades-long authoritarian regime.
To some, it appeared as a good news: from now on, it would be possible to rely on military force to enforce the liberal order and, in a somewhat romanticism way, wage war for the salvation of innocent civilians. For others, that success triggered concerns that western power (and maybe others) would use Libya as a precedent in order to legitimate any intervention.
But neither occurred. On the contrary, the messy civil war in Syria and the brutal repression exerted on the population by Bacher Al Assad have not seen yet a western intervention. Proponents and opponents of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have then argued that that situation of "double standards" is another proof of western states’ cynicism.
Underlying this assumption is a fundamentally flawed perception of what is intervention in the strategic realm and, moreover, what is its meaning in today’s international relations.
R2P and "just war": a case for intervention
As Jean-Baptiste Jengène-Vilmer argued in an insightful article in July, R2P is frequently misled as a legitimating tool to intervene. In fact, R2P is neither a duty nor a free-hand given to a particular state in order to violate the norm of sovereignty upon which the international political system rests. More accurately, it could be depicted both as a condition for sovereign states to be recognized as such and as a right given to external actors, under certain circumstances, to act under UN mandate to interfere in the internal affairs of another state in order to protect its civilians.
In short, R2P functions more like the "just war" doctrine as a set of criteria to discern when and how going to war. It is worth remembering that "just war" is not only about a "just cause" but also about consequences: war is deemed "just" when its expected consequences is not to add more harm or to aggravate the conflict. Put otherwise, that implies intervention is neither a tool of last resort nor a task to be performed in every situation where civilian population is put at risk by a specific government.
Values and interests:
States, and especially great powers, are thus more prone to intervene when there’s a strong consensus among them to do so (in the case of "humanitarian intervention") or when they have both the power and high perceived stakes to act (in the case of "regime change"). Put simply, intervention is function of a particular actor’s logic. That logic rests upon a balance between perceived interests and perceived values. Both matter: values are often framing the way a particular conflict is inscribed into that actor’s interests, and interests are of course what drive the actor to include intervention in its strategic opportunities. It is critical to make that point because values and interests are more often than not perceived as opposed and sometimes conflicting categories. In most cases, there’s a necessity to balance between them rather than to oppose them. In the case of France in Libya, values and interests are melted to a point that is nearly impossible to really separate them. Indeed, France was willing to assert its role as both a Mediterranean power and a promoter of Democracy. On the domestic stage, intervening was also seen as an opportunity driven by the perceived necessity to act in order to restore the president’s image.
But if either values and interests shape the stakes in a particular situation, they have to be balanced with obstacles and potential costs in a strategic calculus. In a sense, Libya presented only a few obstacles: for France, the necessity to frame public opinion and international audience to present intervention as neither a post-colonial move nor a casualties-creating conflict. Those obstacles (mainly internal) drove the way France chose to intervene. That’s not to say that public opinion really mattered as an objective obstacle. On the contrary, it is worth saying that public opinion was seen by political and military elites at the time as either a potential multiplier of legitimacy or a potential constraint in case France would suffer casualties.
In the case of Syria, obstacles are much more important and constraining. First, there are those constraints emanating from the international stage (i.e. the opposition of both China and Russia at the UNSC). Second, political elites are not willing to rely on direct military force and subsequent occupation to deal with Syria. That may be explained by either the interpretation of the last decade’s interventions or by political elites’ perceptions of costs overcoming benefits. Put another way: stakes and interests are not seen as sufficient to risk military or political backlash on either the domestic or the international stage. Third of course, military operations would prove much more difficult in Syria than in Libya, for a great range of reasons.
Moreover, consequences matter: there are growing concerns that an intervention in Syria, while desirable in the light of many interests or values, would lead to unintended and unwanted aftermaths.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 seems to prove that when stakes are high enough, political elites in the world’s most powerful actor can overcome perceived obstacles. On the international stage, the US was able to do it because of its unchallenged capabilities. On the domestic stage, the aftermath of 9/11 allowed the administration to secure a large support in favor of the intervention.
In short, interventions are much likely to occur when stakes and capabilities are higher than dealing with both external and internal constraints. That’s obvious, but that has two implications. First, context matters of course. But second, the way political elites perceive the desirability of a particular course of action seems to be more important than objective constraints.
Those points highlight the fact that Libya has not become the precedent some feared (or hoped) to be. Political elites in most western countries seem to perceive much higher costs and difficulties to intervene in Syria.
It is more likely that, in the near future, western states will choose another course of action, absent the very conditions that allowed the intervention in Libya to be decided, waged and successfully put to an end. In reality, the alternative is not a binary one: between intervening or doing nothing.
States could choose to manage conflicts, humanitarian catastrophes or so-called "rogue states" instead. That’s not to say that we are returning back to the 9/11 era. In many ways, western elites have learnt many lessons from that period. On the other hand, they’ve also drawn wrong lessons from the last decade, especially with regards to which effects military force may and can achieve.
Managing those situations would mean that states would rely on other means to deal with them. First, states could use sanctions or other tools in order to persuade. They could also use proxies or a light footprint approach in order to avoid being entangled in these situations. More probably, great powers would choose to intervene indirectly in order to contain potentially threatening consequences for a particular areas or for themselves.
Conclusion: France in Mali
That’s why France would certainly choose not to intervene directly in Mali. More accurately, one would not expect France to rely on the same assets and on the same course of action than in Libya. First, political elites are willing to avoid any accusation of attempting to reassert control in a previous colony. Second, external threats are seen as less important than domestic issues. Third, further cuts in the defense budget would weigh on capabilities to act. Fourth, France’s political leaders are unwilling to use force by fear of potential reprisals on French hostages. It seems that we forgot the very necessity of deterrence in that particular case. If France intends to remain a global power (albeit with reduced capabilities), it would be critical to remember the political message the use of force may send to both adversaries and partners. Because force means determination, it would be regrettable to lock ourselves in the binary alternative of fear vs. posture.