Eric Posner: NATO Intervention in Libya Made a Mockery of International Law

Outside the Law
Eric Posner
Foreign Policy
October 25, 2011

The execution-style killing of Muammar al-Qaddafi by a mob of gunmen in the ruins of Sirte last week put an end to NATO's six-month military intervention in Libya. Unless the country descends into anarchy or an equally abhorrent dictator succeeds Qaddafi, the Libya intervention will be regarded as a victory for the West, for the United States, and for that reluctant but surprisingly fierce warrior, President Barack Obama. And it's a victory that came on the cheap. It is rare thing indeed for the Pentagon to spend as little as $1 billion on a successful military campaign, without losing ten times that amount in the sofa cushions.

But if the Libya intervention turns out to be a political and moral victory, it also illustrates once again the motto, inter arma silent leges -- in times of war, the law falls mute. Both international and U.S. law took a drubbing alongside Qaddafi's ragtag army, casting further doubt upon the already tenuous notion that international military actions can be conducted on a legal basis.

The basis for the intervention under international law was dubious from the start. Libya is a sovereign state and, as a matter of international law, NATO cannot bomb it without a legal justification. The rebels' request for military intervention could not override the government's quite understandable, if regrettable, refusal to give its consent to be bombed. So, the United States and NAT