As I'm writing this, forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi (or Qaddafi) are regaining territory previously lost to rebel forces. While the government surely benefits from established logistics and command and control, Gadhafi has one crucial resource the rebels lack: air superiority. Air assets allow Gadhafi to move forces quickly, conduct large-scale recon and prevent rebels from moving en masse across established lines of communication, lest they draw fire from helicopter gunships. However, on 12 March the Arab League voted to back a no-fly zone over Libya and asked that the U.N. support their measure. While designed to protect civilians, losing air power will also put the ball back in the rebel court.
As a private citizen and fan of First Amendment rights, I support the rebel cause and would love to see Gadhafi flee Lybia with his tail between his legs (heh... or see his head on a pike). Further, as a career geopolitical analyst I assess dangers in leaving Gadhafi in power. He's tanked his own country's economy through eccentric policy choices, established a family reputation for kleptocracy1, and tarnished his already thin mandate through violence against his own people (let alone infrastructure damage that must be repaired following the crisis outcome). Such a failing regime foments serious economic, security and political uncertainty, creating a blight that can be felt across neighboring borders.
Yet, the Gadhafi regime is the internationally recognized government of Libya (although the recognition is on shaky ground). Under established norms of sovereignty, do other countries have the right to intervene? Sovereignty is taken quite seriously by some observers: I remember when some Americans were up in arms at the idea of a foreign army on U.S. soil when the Mexican army offered to send search and rescue teams to the U.S. following Hurricane Katrina. It's easy for us to consider intervening in other countries ('merica--hell, yeah!), but the idea of other counties intervening in U.S. affairs--even when voluntarily--causes cognitive dissonance, heartburn, and perhaps even ED in certain segments of America.
That said, what would International Relations say to Libyan intervention? The realist paradigm would say no. Given that states live in a condition of anarchy (i.e. their is no systemic-level government), states must engage in "self help," or conduct their own security affairs. In this case, then, the Gadhafi regime is merely reasserting its authority against internal security threats. Under established realist norms, then, other states do not have the right to interfere with Libya's internal affairs. However, self help also means that states will pursue resources: in this case, Libya's oilfields. Support for a no-fly zone would be advertised as a human rights effort but would also protect systemic access to oil (most of which goes to Europe). Even so, states must question the expected utility of intervention: is it worth sacrificing human and materiel resources to stop an established ruler from defending himself?
The constructivist and liberal paradigms would argue that the state system has transcended simple anarchy to a system where accepted norms of behavior diffuse through states and International Organizations. Liberal institutions arose to mitigate common security threats, and by joining the U.N. regimes have agreed to sacrifice some sovereignty to gain shared goods (security, trade, etc). Norms are diffused as well, which helps establish basic systemic concepts of human and enviromental rights. Thus, these paradigms would argue intervention is justified given that the Gadhafi regime has turned to rule by the 50-calibre round. What constitutes universal human rights is a topic worthy of a book; but in this short essay I feel comfortable in saying that many states in the international system frown on wholesale human and environmental destruction, let alone inflicted by a regime on it's own population. Moreover, a failed or weak regime can also encourage diffusion of negative norms, such as criminal activity (the idea of negative norms, of course, is relative to the observer: one regime's destabilizing element is another's invited guest).
Admittedly, I've painted broad brushes with the paradigms, and you're welcome to challenge my paradigmatic interpretations (I have no ego when it comes to fixing incorrect information). Still, although I consider Gadhafi to be a clown of the highest order, I remain on the fence on whether or not intervention is always justified--but I lean towards protecting unarmed innocents.
1 Bloomberg Businessweek has an interesting article on how and why Middle East regime nepotism flourishes. In short, regime fear of failure (and what happens afterwards) encourages leaders such as Ali and Mubarak to protect their self interests as a hedge against things going sour. The hedge did not appear to help either, however. "Arab Regimes' Nepotism Problem." Bloomberg Businessweek. 9 March 2011.