Boring and Sucks: A Review of Robert Pape’s ‘Pragmatic’ Humanitarian Interventionism

This piece began as a short paper submitted October 2016 for Professor Anjali Dayal’s undergraduate seminar at Fordham University called, “The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention.”

For decades Western policymakers and scholars of international politics have tried to articulate a specific set of standards to guide the practice of military intervention. Following World War II, the international community developed a theory that powerful states could intervene in weak states to prevent genocide. But as the 1990s witnessed several genocides answered by varying levels of Western intervention, those who wanted more intervention—“I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Susan Rice remarked about the US response to the Rwandan genocide—developed the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P), which called for a more robust response to humanitarian crises in the form of military action.

To determine which humanitarian crises justify international military intervention, noted terrorism scholar Robert A. Pape offers his own theory in an International Security article titled, “When Duty Calls,” as a better alternative to what he considers the overly restrictive genocide norm and the overly permissive R2P standard. Pape’s technocratically dubbed “pragmatic humanitarian intervention” standard has three requirements: a mass homicide campaign waged by the local government, a low-cost intervention plan, and an exit strategy that ensures “enduring security.”

At the outset, it is naïve to credit, as Pape does, an intervention or non-intervention to a state’s adherence to a neutral, non-ideological, apolitical set of standards. To claim, for example, that “a significant reason why the international community has consistently failed to stop genocides is the [genocide] norm itself” assumes that humanitarian intervention is void of politics—when in fact the very opposite is true (the whole “war is politics” thing).

But setting this larger critique aside for a moment, even a point-by-point response to Pape’s piece reveals the folly of his pragmatic humanitarian intervention (PHI) standard. Pape argues that the 2011 NATO air war in Libya met the requirements of PHI. In this short paper I argue that Libya did not, in fact, meet any of PHI’s three requirements­­­­ for intervention—a mass homicide campaign, a low-cost intervention plan, and an enduring security strategy. Therefore, if Pape thinks Libya fits the PHI standard, then PHI doesn’t work as a standard of intervention for the same reasons that he dismisses the genocide and R2P norms.

Mass homicide campaign

It’s not clear that Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime met Pape’s first requirement that a local government has crossed the mass homicide threshold “when it has killed several thousand of its citizens (i.e., 2,000 to 5,000…)… and it is likely to kill many times that number (i.e., 20,000 to 50,000) in the near future.” Beside the fact that death tolls are notoriously difficult to accurately track as the war in Syria has shown, before NATO’s intervention in Libya (which began on March 19), the death toll was somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000—notably lower than what Pape’s standard calls for.

On March 17 the UN Security Council authorized intervening nations to use “all necessary measures,” including the creation of a no-fly zone but excluding a “foreign occupation force,” to protect civilians on the basis that Qaddafi was about to show “no mercy and no pity” in an allegedly imminent slaughter of the rebel-based city of Benghazi. A week after the intervention began, Obama echoed the Rwanda syndrome: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi—a city nearly the size of Charlotte—could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” Failure to intervene would have been “extremely chilling, deadly and indeed a stain on our collective conscience,” humanitarian crusader Samantha Power, who was on Obama’s National Security Council at the time, moralized. One of her aides warned her not to let Libya become “Obama’s Rwanda.”

To satisfy PHI’s requirement of an impending mass homicide campaign, Pape drinks the Kool-Aid, uncritically citing these and other US government officials. “According to Obama administration sources, about 100,000 would likely die without international intervention,” he writes.

But as several observers pointed out at the time, the likelihood of a Benghazi slaughter was not so cut and dry. “[T]here is in fact no evidence… to suggest [Qaddafi] had either the capability or even the intention to carry out such an atrocity against an armed city of 700,000,” Guardian columnist Seumas Milne wrote. “Obama has treated the evidence about Gadhafi as too obvious to dispute… Absent specific, reliable evidence, we have to wonder if the president succumbed to unwarranted panic over fictitious dangers,” Chicago Tribune columnist Steven Chapman argued. Alan Kuperman, professor at the University of Texas, also expressed skepticism. “Gadhafi directed this [‘no mercy’] threat only at rebels to persuade them to flee. Despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras, there are no images of genocidal violence, a claim that smacks of rebel propaganda. Indeed, Libya’s rebels started the war knowing that they could not win on their own, and that their attacks would provoke harm against civilians, aiming to draw in outside support—and it worked,” he wrote. Former National Security Council staffer Paul Miller put it more bluntly: “Libya is not Rwanda.”

The lack of evidence of a civilian slaughter suggests that it was not sufficiently likely that Qaddafi—who emerged in international politics as the “mad dog of the Middle East” and later became the “American-approved counterexample to Saddam Hussein” following the latter’s U.S. imposed removal in 2003 and by 2008 “a strong partner in the war against terrorism”—would have killed “many times” the number already killed, as Pape’s PHI standard requires. Thus, if Pape thinks Libya meets the PHI standard, then PHI’s bar for intervention is too low, allowing for too many interventions—exactly the critique Pape makes of R2P.

Low-cost intervention plan

NATO’s intervention in Libya did not meet Pape’s second requirement—that “the cost in lives according to reasonable estimates approaches the risks of complex peacetime and training operations and so is effectively near zero.” According to Human Rights Watch—whose top officials, it’s worth noting, cheered on the intervention­­—NATO airstrikes killed at least 72 civilians. In all eight airstrikes that killed these 72 people, HRW reported that there was “no indication of nearby military activity.” Other estimates put the civilian death toll much higher.

Enduring security strategy

Pape’s weakest argument in support of Libya as a PHI-approved intervention is his claim that it met PHI’s third requirement that an intervention have an exit strategy for enduring security. Describing the requirements for enduring security, Pape acknowledges that “foreign-imposed regime change… is rarely the best option” because it likely “create[s] a power vacuum, unleashing local rivalries and leading to intense conflict” and “provoke[s] significant internal resistance.” He asserts on four occasions within three consecutive paragraphs that the West was not engaged in a regime change operation:

From the beginning, the United States and the international coalition against Qaddafi disavowed regime change, invasion, or seizure of Libyan oil. Instead, they focused on providing major Libyan rebel areas the wherewithal to become militarily and economically self-reliant, so that Libyans and not foreign powers would decide Qaddafi’s fate…

There is little evidence… of the kind of large-scale, dedicated efforts at imposing regime change, independent of rebel efforts, that the United States has waged historically…

[A]t no point was there a comprehensive, systematic effort to decapitate the Libyan regime…

When compared to past concentrated U.S. efforts, the intervention in Libya did not constitute a serious program of foreign-imposed regime change.

That the Libya intervention was not a regime change operation is patently false. As is the case for many American interventions—take, for example, Iraq in 2003 or Panama in 1989—Obama administration officials offered several competing, evolving justifications. Although some explicitly denounced regime change at the outset of the intervention in March, what began as a mere civilian protection operation quickly ballooned into intervention in the country’s civil war in the form of large-scale support for the rebels in an effort to overthrow Qaddafi. Armed American drones were bombing Qaddafi’s strongholds throughout the spring, summer and fall, totaling at least 145 drone strikes. After rebels captured the capitol of Tripoli in late August with the help of U.S. drones, the pace of strikes escalated in the hunt for Qaddafi. Indeed, the strike in late October that led to Qaddafi’s capture, gang rape, and death at the hands of rebels was an American one. Astute observer Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, even called the initial civilian protection justification “scarcely believable”:

Given that decapitation strikes against Qaddafi were employed early and often, there almost certainly was a decision by the civilian heads of government of the NATO coalition to ‘take him out’ from the very beginning of the intervention…

In truth, the Libyan intervention was about regime change from the very start. The threat posed by the Libyan regime’s military and paramilitary forces to civilian-populated areas was diminished by NATO airstrikes and rebel ground movements within the first 10 days…

The intervention in Libya shows that the slippery slope of allegedly limited interventions is most steep when there’s a significant gap between what policymakers say their objectives are and the orders they issue for the battlefield.

But in Pape’s lawyerly parsing of events, dropping bombs on a dictator does not constitute regime change as long as a rebel coalition is also fighting to oust him—in other words, regime change by proxy is somehow not regime change. To argue that the United States simply provided rebels “the wherewithal to become militarily and economically self-reliant, so that Libyans and not foreign powers would decide Qaddafi’s fate” removes American agency in Qaddafi’s overthrow. Could the rebels have toppled Qaddafi without American air support? Likely not. Pape’s erasure of American influence is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s—who pushed hard for the intervention as secretary of state—psychopathic cheer, “We came, we saw, he died.” Perhaps a more accurate description of events would have attributed more agency to the US government: “We came, we bombed, he died.” Even “[w]hen compared to past concentrated U.S. efforts,” Pape is still wrong. As journalist Rania Khalek recently pointed out, all regime change efforts don’t always look the same. Regime change in Libya looked less like Bush’s overthrow of Saddam and more like a Reagan-style dirty war. But it was still regime change. Historians will discuss it as such.

What’s more, Pape acknowledges that “[s]aving the lives of people in immediate danger would make little moral sense if the long-term consequence was to create a situation of open-ended, ungovernable chaos resulting in the deaths of these, and perhaps more, people.” Applying this standard to Libya, he writes, “Although the road to long-term security and stability in Libya is uncertain, the available evidence suggests that the country is not descending into the kind of chaos and violence that would fundamentally undermine the goals of the intervention.” It’s important to note here that Pape’s article was published in the summer of 2012, less than a year after Qaddafi’s death. In this context, upholding the “success in Libya”—while simultaneously admitting that “the road to long-term security and stability in Libya is uncertain”—as a model intervention for the workability of a new intervention standard should prompt immediate skepticism of the standard.

Time has rendered Pape’s standard ineffective. Since 2011 Libya has turned into precisely what Pape warns against: a failed state wrought with chaos, instability, competing governments, and violent jihadism—in other words, justification for further intervention. In a bit of historical irony, the United States has begun to “seize on the effects of its own bombing campaign in Libya to justify an entirely new bombing campaign in that same country,” journalist Glenn Greenwald writes. Since August 2016 the U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State in Libya, which has seized on the power vacuum and rampant instability created by the very intervention that, in Pape’s view, had established “enduring security.” This Kissingerian denial of history among interventionists is alarming, as the conditions created by American interventions are used over and over again by policymakers to justify further intervention.

In Britain, the Libya intervention directly produced blowback. As Max Blumenthal reported, the guy who bombed the Ariana Grande concert in May 2017 came from an anti-Qaddafi family funded by the U.K. government in 2011.


Pape critiques the genocide standard for intervention on the grounds that it “does not sufficiently address the question of the long-term political consequences of humanitarian intervention.” Similarly, he lambasts the R2P standard because it makes humanitarian intervention “indistinguishable from foreign-imposed regime change.” But as we see in the Libya case, Pape’s standard fails on these two points, as well. Despite Pape’s technocratic effort to create a better standard of intervention under the guise of “pragmatic” objectivity, his embrace of the Libya war shows that his standard fails to produce policy that improves the conditions of people on the ground.

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