Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why It Matters What We Call Libya

The international community continues to monitor closely the situation in Libya. What began as "liberation protests" quickly devolved into a "humanitarian crisis," and may soon morph again into "civil war."

But why does the name matter? Libyans are actively getting killed, and many more may die in the weeks ahead regardless of how we characterize the situation. The strategic interests of the international community are also relatively static regardless of what happens. So why does what we call the situation in Libya matter at all?

Though it may seem an esoteric question, the way the international community perceives the ground conditions in Libya is important because different characterizations mandate different responses. The norms surrounding each characterization carry along with them a certain tacit expectation of foreign response. For a "genocide," multilateral intervention is mandated. For a "humanitarian crisis" it is strongly encouraged. For "liberation protests" and "civil war" it is discouraged.

This in turn means that while the debate over Libya is largely focused on commitments, logistics, feasibility, and morality, these considerations are couched in a context of the norms surrounding the situation. It also means that if the situation in Libya does devolve into civil war, the expectations of intervention from the international community will change as well. This is why policy makers are being very careful not to commit to a response which is mandated in the current understanding of Libya, but superfluous in a civil war. The fact that they are dealing with a situation in motion between the two is further complicating policy planning with regards to Libya.

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