Shaun Casey: Weighing Intervention in Libya

Watch extended excerpts from correspondent Kim Lawton’s March 16, 2011 interview about the ethics of intervention in Libya with Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.


  • Tom Morris

    What a silly debate! By delaying we have already made a choice. Khadafi has routed the rebels and has all but taken back the country. Had we acted decisively 3-4 weeks ago, a no-fly zone could have been effective. Now it would be meaningless and just prolong a civil war.

  • Howard Rhodes

    As of this writing, the United Nations Security Council has passed Resolution 1973 enabling a coalition of states, including France and Britain, to impose a “no fly zone” over Libya and “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas” from attacks by Libyan armed forces. President Obama has spoken forcefully that the Libyan government must withdraw its forces from around civilian areas or face serious consequences. Time will tell whether this Security Council authorized intervention will prove a valuable step toward international peace or an embarrassing and destructive folly.
    On the terms Professor Casey establishes for the debate, we can assume for the sake of argument that Resolution 1973 adequately satisfies the need for “proper authority” in the use of force. We can also assume that the particular way in which the Security Council justifies the imposition of a “no fly zone” satisfies the concern for “just cause.” According to the Security Council, any military actions pursuant to Resolution 1973 will be for the purpose of protecting civilians from harm, promoting a reasonably restrained political process for the resolution of Libya’s domestic conflicts, and insuring the free flow of humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians. The Resolution also explicitly rules out any foreign occupation of Libyan territory. While this exclusion would seem to satisfy the criterion of “right intention,” Professor Casey helpfully highlights two other considerations – those of “proportionality” (which he discusses, problematically, in terms of “scale”) and “reasonable hope for success” – that fall under the general rubric of “right intention.” Here, judgment of the intervention in Libya is shakier. Exactly what are the intervening states prepared to do as the conflict unfolds under the umbrella of “taking all necessary measures” to protect civilians? What’s the anticipated “second act” of this drama, as Professor Casey puts it? At the present moment, we might ask what all the sound and the fury will signify if Qaddafi actually does accept a cease-fire and simply rests content with his already overwhelming military and territorial dominance?
    Professor Casey’s comments well introduce how someone committed to the just war tradition might think about this situation with one crucial exception. Many citizens in the United States (and around the world) question the extent to which humanitarian protection is the actual motive for the undertaking. The humanitarian dimensions of the crisis are undeniable, of course. However, it seems willful to focus on humanitarian concerns to justify the conflict when other concerns – such as the desire to topple an entrenched and megalomaniac dictator, to assist a potentially pro-democracy revolutionary force, to transfer Libyan oil wealth to the hands of a more predictable and friendly government, and to send a clear message of resolve to other dictatorships in the area – are so obviously at the forefront of western nations’ considerations. Would acknowledging these concerns as the principal motivations for the use of force by the United States, France, and Britain undermine the justification of the intervention in Libya?
    Professor Casey does not address such a question directly, but his comments tend clearly toward a view that would reject the moral legitimacy of these reasons for action. When discussing “just cause,” he argues that preventing mass atrocities (such as genocides) is the principal justification for war in the just war tradition. War, on this view, is justified primarily when it is a matter of preventing mass atrocity and ensuring that armed conflicts are conducted according to basic rules. In this sense, Professor Casey’s presentation of the just war tradition tracks well the way in which the tradition of international humanitarian law has come to think of justified war (and which is clearly embodied in Resolution 1973). It is a presentation that makes the prevention or avoidance of war the principal concern of the jus ad bellum criteria, but then justifies war in the event of mass atrocity against innocent civilians. The effect of this is to encourage a kind of hypocrisy in our political leaders. They are forced to justify their use of armed force in the pursuit of justice in broad terms having to do with protecting the innocent while obfuscating the full range of their real reasons.
    But must we have mass atrocity in order to have a just cause of war, according to just war reasoning? If so, then the Libyan crisis does not sufficiently distinguish itself from most other situations of its kind. Qadaffi’s regime is clearly engaged in terrible and illegal acts against many of its citizens. But as I write, its response to the uprising seems no better and no worse than the actions of similar authoritarian regimes responding to insurrection. (It is crucial to remember that Qadaffi’s forces are responding to an armed insurrection that set out deliberately to topple his regime. His activities are not simply a brutal response to peaceful protests, though they perhaps began that way). The situation in Libya is bad, as all wars are bad for the poor, innocent, and vulnerable, but it does not yet seem to rise to the level of “mass atrocity” in the way that Professor Casey discusses it (evoking a comparison to genocide).
    It is better, I think, to acknowledge that international justice and stability are sometimes served best by intervening on the side of revolutionary movements in the context of authoritarian dictatorships. We need not talk about “mass atrocity” in order to acknowledge the massive injustice of a regime like Qaddaffi’s. To say this, however, we would need to revise how Professor Casey talks about “just cause” and other aspects of just war reasoning. The principal concern of the just war tradition, at least until the middle of the twentieth century, was international justice, not the prevention of war. If a war (or armed intervention) is a prudent means of pursuing international justice then it can be considered to have crossed the basic threshold toward full moral justification. (All other criteria continue to apply). Just war thinkers have always discussed war in terms of a “last resort,” morally subordinate to other forms of political influence. But this did not, and should not, prevent them from justifying small wars to topple dictators when significant elements of his population align against him. Furthermore – contra Professor Casey – the jus ad bellum criterion of proportionality is not primarily about the “scale” of the crime, but about whether the good to be done by using force will outweigh the inevitable harms that will accompany it.

  • Dennis Crouch

    What kind of debate are we really talking about? A just war can never be agreed to by everyone. One could say a just war was possible when the rebels had the Qadaffi’s regime on the run. The longer we dithered, the less chance existed that we could have stopped innocents from being killed. Now, after the regime has gained control of most of Libya, many people have been killed and more will be killed. The difficulty in establishing a “no fly zone” has now become more difficult. And then what?

    And recognize that more people will be killed as the “coalition” attempts to destroy the defensive capability of the Qadiffi regime. Is that just? Is any killing just? ….Of course it is, A just war could be considered one that satisfies the national interest of the countries in question. If it doesn’t satisfy the national interest of the countries involved then the loss of our military, or their military, it is not just.. …..When considering whether the war is just or not, should one consider the outcome of the action. For example, we oust Qaddffi but the rebel force is not known to be democratic but just another chance for a tyrant to come to power. Was that a just war? I doubt it. Unfortunately, you won’t know that answer until much later. You’ll know that outcome after people are killed, including the US military, the coalition military and innocents on the ground.

    The Just War concept is just that, a concept and doesn’t take into account the many variables or decisions that must be made to “win.”…..And by the way, what is the objective of this UN effort? It is very murky and one can’t even address the just war concept until one understands what the objectives are. Without morality, no action can be considered just. Is this a moral action? It’s too late to even consider without knowing the final objecives of the effort.