A final takeaway for humanitarians is that their advocacy of quick intervention to avert incipient genocide may also backfire. The inclination toward rapid response is understandable given that civilians can be killed relatively swiftly, as I myself have documented in The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. However, a rushed decision increases the danger that misinformation or disinformation will prompt counter-productive intervention. In Libya, both pathologies manifested, as the West failed to recognize that Al Qaeda was leading the rebellion and then fell for opposition propaganda that Qaddafi was slaughtering civilians. The precipitous timing of the intervention—barely one month after the first whiff of protest against Qaddafi—undoubtedly contributed to these misjudgments. Thus, humanitarians are left with a terrible dilemma: wait too long to intervene and risk failing to prevent violence, or intervene prematurely and risk exacerbating violence. Faced with this ominous choice, the Hippocratic principle of “first, do no harm” would recommend more patience.
Ironically, in 2011, the swiftness of intervention in Libya was touted as a historic success that would help codify the emerging norm of the “Responsibility to Protect.” In retrospect, such haste empowered Islamic militants, amplified human suffering and created a failed state—all of which has undermined international support for any future humanitarian intervention.
Alan J. Kuperman is Associate Professor at the lbj School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin. His books include The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda (Brookings) and Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa: Preventing Civil War through Institutional Design (Penn Press). He has been a Fellow at the Wilson Center and a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
The author thanks Patrick Harned for research assistance and gratefully acknowledges financial support from the Policy Research Institute of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.