Humanitarian intervention has always been more popular in theory than in practice. In the face of unspeakable acts, the desire to do something, anything, is understandable. States have tended to be reluctant to act on such desires, however, leading to the present situation in which there are scores of books and countless articles articulating the contours of a right—or even an obligation—of humanitarian intervention, while the number of cases that might be cited as models of what is being advocated can be counted on one hand.
So is Libya such a case? It depends on why one thinks that precedent is important. From an international legal perspective, debates have tended to focus on whether one or more states have the right to intervene in another for human protection purposes. From the standpoint of international relations and domestic politics, the question is whether states have the will to intervene. From a military angle, a key dilemma is whether states have the ability to intervene effectively. This essay considers these three issues in turn. The legal significance of Libya is minimal, though the international response does show how the politics of humanitarian intervention has shifted to the point where it is harder to do nothing in the face of atrocities. At the same time, however, military action to the end of May 2011 suggested a continuing disjunction between ends and means.
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