The UN-approved and NATO-led military intervention in Libya offers a great case study on the differences between the realist an idealist worldviews, and how these fundamental ideological differences play out in the realm of foreign policy choices. Realists claim to deal with the world as it is rather than how one might wish it to be (the problem with the “idealists,” in their view). Given limited resources and the constraints of an anarchic world, realists contend, states must focus on the national interest and avoid the entanglements associated with moral crusades in foreign lands. Idealists (sometimes called liberals) on the other hand believe that a state’s foreign policy should be guided both by its interests and its values, and that certain moral outrages (e.g., severe human rights abuses) obligate the international community to intervene, with force if necessary. While realists are thus sometimes stereotyped as warmongers given their willingness to use coercive instruments unimpeded by moral reservations when the national interest demands it, idealists are in some cases the ones itching to “pull the trigger” on military intervention while realists caution them to stay out.
Such is the case with Libya, where the U.N. has authorized member states to use force to protect civilians and President Obama justified the intervention as “preventing a massacre.” Idealists have been quick to praise Obama’s decision, and Middle East expert Marc Lynch articulates this case well:
“…had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched. The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.”
On the other side are the realists, such as Stephen Walt, who contend that intervention does not serve a vital (American) national interest, and decry the instability and uncertainty that will result from casting aside the status quo in the hope of achieving something better: “…The US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya…So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq.”
Realists are not a monolithic group, and if a realist believed that intervention in Libya served the national interest (perhaps through the security benefits of democracy promotion in the Middle East or the fall of Qaddafi’s regime) he or she would support it. However, most realists who have weighed in on Libya have viewed the intervention largely in humanitarian terms and have therefore opposed it as outside the scope of the national interest and potentially damaging to that interest given the lack of a clear end game, the seemingly ineffectual nature of much of the bombing, and the potential damage to U.S. and allied credibility.
Does the U.S. and the international community more broadly have an obligation to protect Libya’s civilians? Why have we taken action in Libya while seemingly turning a blind eye to human rights violations elsewhere? Is there an “end game” in sight or are we destined for a long and costly conflict, reminiscent of Iraq?