Does Intervention in Cases of Revolution Serve to Minimize Civilian Casualties?

By Andrew Shaver, Research Assistant, Princeton University, NJ


When President Obama addressed the nation on March 28th of this year, he explained that he had authorized U.S. military action against Qaddafi’s regime “to stop the killing.” To underscore the urgency of U.S. intervention, he detailed the abuses committed by the regime against Libyan civilians.

“Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked. Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off. The water for hundreds of thousands of people in Misratah was shut off. Cities and towns were shelled, mosques destroyed and apartment buildings reduced to rubble. Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assault from the air.”

Yet, does intervention in cases of revolution actually serve to minimize civilian casualties? Upon initial reflection, the answer seems obvious. The presence of foreign forces should serve to deter the killing of civilians by the host-nation government or its mercenary agents. Indeed, much of the literature that has been written on the subject has simply taken for granted ‘the fact’ that intervention in cases of expected mass atrocity serves to prevent such. Yet, trends are beginning to paint another picture, and, in late April, Obama Administration officials conceded that the death toll in Libya may approach 30,000.

So, it is worth asking: would mass slaughter of civilians actually have taken place had President Obama opted against intervention? Perhaps more importantly, even if Qaddafi had permitted his forces to continue to indiscriminately kill Libyan civilians, would a greater number of civilian lives have been lost than will ultimately occur over the course of the Libya conflict in spite of current NATO operations against Libyan forces?

Answers to such questions would be of significant importance as policy makers and politicians seek to determine just how effective NATO’s intervention in Libya is and whether similar such action might be applied in Syria and other epicenters of Arab Spring unrest.

Earlier academic research focused on determining why certain types of civil conflict result in greater bloodshed than others has found that those conflicts in which foreign assistance is available to combatants tend to be more severe. Other academic work has shown that revolutions, relative to other forms of civil conflict, tend to be short lived while civil conflict in which there exists a third-party backer tends to last longer than other types of civil conflict. Such findings provide reason to question whether it might actually be the case that foreign intervention in cases of revolution tends to transform them into longer-lasting conflicts with greater loss of civilian life, even when the intention and corresponding strategy of such intervention is prevention of civilian casualties.

Unfortunately, this question is a difficult one to address empirically. A comparison of numbers of civilian lives lost in cases of revolution in which no foreign power(s) intervenes against cases of revolution in which a foreign power(s) intervenes for the purpose of preventing casualties is likely to be confounded by the very fact that countries may tend to intervene in cases where there is reason to suspect greater loss of civilian lives. Put differently, even if it were demonstrated that foreign intervention in cases of revolution actually tend to result in greater loss of civilian lives, without an appropriate means of controlling for such, it would not be possible to determine whether the greater loss of life resulted from the intervention itself or because those conflicts that drew intervention were inherently more violent.

Then, again, do states actually ever intervene in the affairs of other states for the singular purpose of preventing civilian loss of life?

Andrew Shaver is a graduate student in Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and is presently engaged in independent research for NDU’s Center for Complex Operations. He served previously within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and for the Defense Secretary’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations.


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Filed under Featured News, Middle East, NATO, Regional Studies, Strategic Studies

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