Can low-tech armies fight legal wars?

Libya has been an intervention largely premised on violations of the rules and norms of warfare. At least according to the official story, it was the Gaddafi regime's brutalities, and specifically its attacks on civilians, that put it beyond the pale and opened the door to international intervention. I've got no quibble with this rationale, although the scale of the killing and atrocities in Libya remains somewhat murky. But it does raise an interesting question: can a low-tech army fight a civil war, particularly in urban areas, without regularly violating the laws of war and endangering civilians?

Imagine for a moment that a poor country is fighting a civil war with a low-tech and spottily trained army. Imagine further that the government leaders have no intention of abusing civilians but are determined to prevail against the rebels, most of whom don't wear uniforms. Is this kind of army even capable of conducting operations that don't fall well afoul of the rules of war? It may be that developments in the laws of war and changing norms have made lawful war almost impossible for all except the most advanced militaries, blessed with precision weapons and enormous budgets.

The Multilateralist

The administration confronts the prevention problem

According to this Laura Rozen account, the Obama administration is making the case to outside experts that, absent intervention, Libya would have become the locus of another horrific massacre, much worse than those that occurred during the Balkans wars.

"This is a limited humanitarian intervention, not war," White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross, National Security Council strategic planning official Derek Chollet, and two military officials told a group of outside foreign policy and Middle East experts during a briefing at the White House Roosevelt Room Tuesday.

"We were looking at 'Srebrenica on steroids' —the real or imminent possibility that up to a 100,000 people could be massacred, and everyone would blame us for it," Ross explained, according to one of the foreign policy experts who attended the briefing, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the administration is trying to keep its consultations private.

Faced with defending a complex and controversial mission, the administration strategy--arguing that much, much worse was in store--is natural. And these officials may well be right (although as Rozen's article points out, the administration did not explain how it reached its estimate of 100,000). One of the real political problems with prevention is that it's nearly impossible to identify it with certainty. Absent a cache of Libyan documents or the testimony of top officials elaborating plans for the Benghazi massacre, there will always be room for debate. Meanwhile, the political and financial costs of intervention are all too obvious.