The kaleidoscope of power is spinning wildly in the Arab region. While most of us rejoice at the blossoming of the crescent democratic movements from Tunis to Amman, others are asking if the fragile balance of power in the region could be recast. Have decision-makers considered the consequences of if the “Arab Awakening” turns rouge?

Paradoxically, the nascent democracies could replace the regimes that are well-disposed to America and her allies, like that of Hosni Mubarak, with governments hostile to the West and its geopolitical interests. In the twinkling of an eye, the American and European strategic template since the 1950s has been redrawn. Are the former bulwarks against Hezbollah and Hamas or rogue states, like Iran, being swept away? Is the collapse of Sunni regimes more of a boost for Iran than the West? How does America respond to the riots in Bahrain — where the US blue water Fifth Fleet is located — and in her longtime friend, Jordan? Will Yemen protests bolster al-Qaeda? China, Japan and emerging powers like Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey must fashion their responses, too.

As I write, one of the most serious questions is if the Western personae dramatis, principally Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, have considered the ethical considerations of Nato’s intervention to implement a no-fly zone over Libya? Is this a “Just War” (or intervention motivated by a “Just Cause”)? Do we even know who the rebels are? Does Libya, among the 22 states of the region, lie in the West’s immediate sphere of interest? Will the Arab League maintain their flaky support if mission creep sets in and intervention becomes regime change? Will Nato put boots on the ground if the no-fly zone fails to halt the violence? I submit that the answer to these questions is “no” in every case. I would like to evaluate this debate, and respond to some of your comments in my previous analysis about the ethics of using force (thank you for them), by interpolating the Libyan intervention with an alternative Doomsday scenario.

Some foreign policy realists, recalling the memory of the 1973 oil crisis, when Arab-oil producing countries, and Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, declared an oil embargo against America for supporting the Israeli armed forces during the Yom Kipper War, feel a sense of déjà vu today.

Is it possible that a tilt of power in the region towards nationalist Islam, or even simply non-aligned, governments could, once again, attempt to use their oil supplies as leverage by imposing embargoes, quotas or blockades for political purposes? The question, posed by realist luminaries like Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, as to whether the use of force in such circumstances would be morally justified or unjustified unfolds within this context.

This question cannot be answered without first defining “Just Cause”, and bridging the gap between the concepts of “jus ad bellum” (the right to wage war) and “jus in bello” (justice in war).  “Just Cause”, simply put, means that a war should only be prosecuted if innocent people are in imminent and mortal danger: only military intervention can protect them. From this standpoint, it would therefore appear that military intervention in the aforementioned crisis would fall outside the ambit of “Just Cause”. Although such an event would be economically and politically calamitous, people’s lives would unlikely be in direct imminent and mortal danger.

However, on the other hand, global security and peace would hang in the balance. In today’s interdependent global economy, strife and anguish would follow an oil embargo. Stagflation, sovereign debt, protectionism, and rising unemployment would soon yield to civil unrest, famine and violence in emerging economies. Furthermore, the incendiary Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear programme would bedevil the conflagration. As Israel would become defensive, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be emboldened. In the worst Armageddon scenario, a regional nuclear war could be unleashed before morphing into a global conflict.

Thus, is it possible to ask, purloining a legal definition, if there is a “statutory limitation” to the concept of “Just Cause”? In this vein, some commentator’s preference of translating justum bellum as “justified war” rather than “just war” is instructive. If the decision-maker, as some classical theorists aver, weighs the questions of jus ad bellum and draws affirmative conclusions, war may be justified, although it may not be strictly defined as a “just war”.

Yet, the use of force in this frightening situation presents multiple questions and tests. Have all diplomatic efforts been pursued? Is there a reasonable chance of success to avoid bloodshed? Has the search for alternative and sustainable energy sources been exhausted? Have smart sanctions been imposed? Has the casus belli been legitimised by the United Nations to avoid the charge of imperialism?

The absence of a second United Nations resolution in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003 bitterly divided the international community and the Arab world. Without a genuine multilateral framework and United Nations authorisation, such a military enterprise would flounder. It is highly unlikely, in terms of international law, supremely embodied in the UN Charter, that such a mandate would be authorised. (Yes, in Libya’s case it has been authorised by the Security Council at astonishing speed).

Then there is the question, which I posed in my previous blog, of proportionality; the murkiest of just war theories. In a time of war, a leader must ask how much force is required to change the tide of events in their favor without resorting to gratuitous violence. Here, three broadly defined conditions of a just war are of the essence. (I don’t think the Libyan intervention passes muster by these criteria). Such a war would not be one fought over the incursion of a state’s territorial sovereignty, like Kuwait in 1990, or have been provoked by a military aggressor, like that of Nazi Germany. Nor would the war be fought over acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing, like the Bosnian or Rwandan conflicts. This war would rather be fought over the withholding of vital oil supplies.

It would therefore seem, by these criteria, that military intervention in these circumstances would be to stretch the elasticity of the notion of a justified war too far. The poorest countries possess the lion’s share of the world’s most precious natural commodities. Would expeditionary interventions then be justified by, for instance, China, in belligerent African states, or by America in Venezuela? Thucydides rule of Real Politick, “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must”, would trump the concept of a just war and international law.

More enduringly, should, or could, the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello be bridged in search for a lasting peace that has eluded this sensitive region? Understandably, many Arabs feel aggrieved that the rich oil reserves that lies underneath their earth mainly benefit wealthy Western economies and profit their ruling kleptocracies of Emirs and Sheiks. The question of putative military intervention cannot be delinked from the larger narrative of the need to address the concerns of millions of Arabs — many of whom are taking to the streets of Amman, Damascus and Tripoli as you read this today — to address the structural inequalities of their societies.

A realist might say this is idealistic and recall the famous dictum that “war is politics by other means”. Yet war, as the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts illustrates, is usually harder, more intractable, and results in greater loss of life than anticipated. While it might seem to many that such a war could be justified in the terrible picture painted; proportionality, justice, and even military success, would be far less certain.

By sketching this, admittedly crude, scenario, it does speak to some of the questions which I believe have not been asked in the present crisis. The biggest danger in statecraft is when the decision-maker has not considered the ethical dimensions of intervention before the first occasion when they are faced with such a crisis. I believe this is such a time in the Élysée Palace, 10 Downing Street and the White House.

After all, in a moment of bleak humour, it was only a few years ago that Sarkozy literally allowed Colonel Gaddafi to pitch his tent in the grounds of the Élysée Palace. Two years ago, Cameron’s immediate predecessor signed off a letter to the vicious tyrant as “Gordon”. I have a feeling the estimable William Hague is being overridden by Britain’s prime minister lite and his pliant deputy. The US administration is split down the middle between Clinton and Robert Gates and an, uncharacteristically, inarticulate President. Sarkozy is just, well, being Sarkozy.

Could this intervention, in the law of unintended consequences, worsen the plight of the Libyan people and the other pro-democracy movements? Although, for example, Iran may benefit from the collapse of Sunni governments in the short term, at least half of the Iranian population detests their regime. This could change, in Damascus, too, if attitudes to the West harden. John F. Kennedy spoke of the need to sometimes exercise the “wisdom of restraint” to win the longer peace.  One thing is for sure: this is only the end of the beginning.


  • Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service Fellowship. Jon is the speechwriter to Democratic Alliance Leader, Helen Zille. He has also served as the speechwriter to the leader of the official opposition, private secretary to elder statesman, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and, briefly, as the Head of Ministry of Transport and Public Works in the Democratic Alliance-led Western Cape Provincial Government. He spent time at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London in 2011 working on the Faith and Globalisation, and Faiths Acts programmes. In 2000 he worked as a consultant policy writer for the then Democratic Party. [email protected] Twitter: jonthekaizer


Jon Cayzer

Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service...

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