Why did the US intervene in Libya but not Syria? Neoliberalism vs. Domestic Political Approach Theory

I wrote this paper for PSCI 150: Intro to IR in the fall of 2011 for Dr. Jessica Stanton’s class.  Like my piece on nuclear deterrence, this paper is pretty heavy on IR theory.

But this paper is also definitely an interesting time capsule, especially now when President Obama just moments ago addressed the country calling for military strikes against Syria in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad‘s use of chemical weapons.

The history of Western intervention in the Middle East dates back far before the American intervention in Iraq.  However, it is against that backdrop that the current trend of democratization in the Middle East is playing out on the international stage.  A quagmire at best, the US intervention into Iraq yielded both harsh lessons and valuable insights for America and the West generally.  As the Arab Spring progressed, and as citizens clashed more and more with authoritarian governments, the question lingered, “Would the West (read: America) again step in?”  For two countries in particular, Libya and Syria, – both of whom saw rise to popular protests and demonstrations against decades-long dictatorships this past February and March, respectively – the answer to that question differed greatly.  This paper will seek to analyze that difference.  In order to do so, this paper will first define the theory of Neoliberal Institutionalism and relate it to the cases of Libya and Syria.  Next, the author will do the same with the theory of Domestic Political Approaches (DPA).  This paper will conclude by contrasting the two theoretical perspectives and arguing that the latter approach better explains the seemingly inconsistent US responses to violence in Libya and Syria.

The defining characteristic of the theory of Neoliberal Institutionalism is its faith in international institutions (Lecture, 9/14/2011).  While this theory has Realist elements to it – states are the principal actors in a realm of anarchy which necessitates their self-help imperatives (Lecture, 9/14/2011) – Neoliberal Institutionalism maintains that through international institutions, not only is cooperation possible (Jervis 2011, p.336-337) and self-motivated (Keohane 2011, p.304-5); but that conflict can be mitigated (Lecture, 9/14/2011).  The poster child institution of this theory, the United Nations, serves as a platform for information sharing, thereby reducing uncertainty, and for continual interactions among states, thereby internalizing the incentives for cooperation (Lecture, 9/14/2011).  So when “[Qaddafi] and his sons…vowed to slaughter the people of Tobruk and Benghazi,” (Economist, 3/24/2011, p.1) the UN was put to the test.  As troops and armored tanks bore down on the cities with orders to exterminate the resistance fighters, “the outside world had to intervene within days or not at all,” (Economist, 3/24/2011, p.1).  Quickly and boldly, the UN Security Council “voted to authorize military action” and to implement a no-fly zone in a show of support for the Libyan rebels (New York Times, 10/4/2011, p.1).  Nations from the United Kingdom and France to those like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates helped America enforce the no-fly zone (Obama, 3/28/2011) in what was a picture-perfect demonstration of the kind of international collaboration espoused by Neoliberal Institutionalists.

When American proposed a similar UN resolution condemning the crackdown in Syria –2,700 dead and over 10,000 imprisoned (New York Times, 10/3/2011, p.1) – it was met with international opposition from Russia to China to Brazil and in between (Foreign Policy, 8/1/2011, p.2).  Thus, when we examine these two cases of Libya and Syria through the lens of Neoliberal Institutionalism, we find the same international body; similar governmental killings of civilians; and yet two starkly different reactions from the member states of that international body.  Accordingly, America’s actions were different.  America imposed unilateral and “unprecedented sanctions” (Obama, 8/18/2011) on the Syrian government but gave the rebels zero military support.  Certainly, economic sanctions hurt a dictator; but can they really compare to an international bombardment of Tomahawk missiles against that dictator’s key tactical targets?

To reconcile these incongruent forms of US (and international) action, we turn now to the second theory of international relations discussed in this paper: DPA theory.  More of a challenge to Realist thought than is Neoliberal Institutionalism, DPA theory focuses its theorizing from a second level of analysis of the international system (Lecture, 9/12/2011).  That is, rather than focusing on the international system (third level analysis), DPA theory argues that states are defined and behave according to their internal politics and powerful domestic groups (Lecture, 9/21/2011).  Naturally, DPA theory classifies all states by those with similar domestic politics.  This has resulted in the theory of Democratic Peace, which is characterized by both the Dyadic Effect – democracies don’t fight each other – and the Monadic Effect – democracies are generally peaceful, regardless of the foreign form of government with whom they are dealing (Lecture, 9/21/2011).  Furthermore, when democracies do actually enter wars, they tend not only to win but to lose fewer lives than do their authoritarian counterparts (Lecture, 9/21/2011).

It is this last characteristic that most easily explains the different US reactions to violence in Libya and Syria.  To understand why this is so, it is first necessary to discuss a glaring exception to the theory of Democratic Peace: democracies in transition.  Without strong and tested bureaucratic institutions – the very kinds of slow moving bureaucracies that reduce the ability of democracies to run headfirst into wars before exhausting other peaceful alternatives (Lecture, 9/21/2011) – fledgling democracies are incredibly vulnerable to a host of domestic downfalls that threaten to quickly transform freedom fighting into a violent power vacuum (Mansfield & Snyder, 1995, p.88-89).  These domestic downfalls include, but are not limited to, unstable domestic coalitions, shortsighted political gambling by the new elites, sectarianism, militarism, and civil war (Mansfield & Snyder, 1995, p.88-89).  For two recent examples, one needs only to look at Iraq post-Saddam Hussein and Afghanistan post-Taliban.

Recalling the last characteristic of the Democratic Peace – that democracies tend to win the wars that they enter – we can see that the decision of any state to intervene in another revolves around a complicated calculation.  America, or any other possible intervener, must hedge the country-of-interest’s likelihood to fall to the foregoing plights of democratization against the gross costs to human life under the existing and brutal authoritarian regime.  And it is precisely this calculation that explains the different US policies with regards to Libya and Syria.

Let us first examine Libya.  The population is, “homogeneous…albeit with sharp tribal loyalties,” (Economist, 3/24/2011, p.2).  Of course there are several ideologies across the political spectrum – but as the resistance gathered steam its base of support widened, from secular liberals to Islamists to recent Qaddafi defectors (Economist, 3/24/2011, p.2).  Weighed against this moderately likely chance for domestic cooperation were undeniable and innumerable human rights violations: “Hospitals and ambulances were attacked… Supplies of food and fuel were choked off…Military jets and helicopter gunships were unleashed upon people who had no means to defend themselves against assaults from the air” (Obama, 8/28/2011).[1]  The domestic politics and suffering of Libya were such that the US calculated a net gain from intervention.

In relative contrast to Libya, Syria’s domestic politics are considered to be “a problem from hell” (Foreign Policy, 8/1/2011, p.1).  The Syrian elites are “a small [Shiite] minority in a mostly Sunni country” (New York Times, 10/3/2011, p.1).  Furthermore, and “unlike Libya, Syria matters in regional geopolitics” on issues such as Arab-Israeli relations (Foreign Policy, 8/1/2011, p.1).  Even within the opposition forces, cooperation is “fractious” and “only loosely connected to the street protesters” (Foreign Policy, 8/1/2011, p.2).  On the human life side of the equation, and as horrible as it is to draw this distinction, the Syrian government simply isn’t killing as many of its civilians as Libya did and threatened to do.  As of yet, Syria’s crackdown is on a demonstration-by-demonstration basis – the government has yet to threaten entire cities of men, women, and children with extermination.  Add to the intervention calculation the possibility of regional de-stabilization, and one sees why the US calculated a net loss from intervention.

Thus, pursuant to the intervention calculation as it relates to democratizing states, DPA theorists can very easily identify that Libya presented a more attractive option than did Syria to the US.[2]  And it is precisely because DPA theory accounts for the inconsistency of Neoliberal Institutionalist theory as it applies to Libya and Syria that the author fully supports DPA theory’s interpretation of US action in both cases.  The Neoliberal Institutionalist theory is too marred by the self-help imperative to consistently predict collective action among states (or in this case, explain US incongruence).  Until an international institution is created that gives all countries a direct stake in one another, the realities of anarchy will continue to hold more sway over states’ decision making processes than the incentives to cooperate.  Conversely, because DPA theory is rooted in the second level of analysis, it is not confounded by anarchy.  To DPA theorists, the self-help imperative is simply a broad way of saying that what’s going within each country matters a great deal when predicting its behavior and how it is treated.  America intervention in Libya and not Syria demonstrates that every country undergoes its own intervention calculation.  When several countries unite to intervene, they do so because they arrive at similar calculations; not because they are acting as an international unit through an international organization.  Not to be bothered by such third level analysis, DPA theory does a much better job than Neoliberal Institutionalist theory in accounting for the different US reactions to violence in Libya and Syria.


[1] It is appropriate, in the case of Libya, to add another variable to the intervention calculation: oil.  A democratic government, like that of America, needs to please its electorate’s demand for growth (Doyle 2011, p.53).  The solution is imperialist policies to gain resources and territory (Doyle 2011, p.59).  Cynical DPA theorists will therefore argue that America’s unyielding reliance on foreign oil was an important variable when deciding whether to intervene in Libya, an “oil-rich nation” (Economist, 10/4/2011).

[2] Again, the cynical DPA theorist will contrast Libya’s oil depositories with Syria’s lack thereof.

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