The Security Council voted late Thursday by 10 votes to zero, but with five abstentions, for a resolution that authorized military action to protect civilians. The resolution included many understandable reservations and cautions, bearing in mind the US record. Not least it precluded foreign occupation.
We can accept that a patient with a brain tumour might desperately need surgery, but there is still cause for alarm if Jack the Ripper offers to operate. Both method and motive are open to question.
So while no person with a conscience wants Gaddafi to win his sanguinary battle of repression against his own people, there are more than enough doubts that the US is the appropriate specialist to call. However, like Jack the Ripper - they do have the knives. We should avoid the reflexive binary positions both of those who support any intervention in an Arab country and those who equally obdurately oppose any intervention by any Western power, anywhere.
In fact, ever since the 2005 General Assembly when Kofi Annan steered the UN General Assembly into accepting that that the Security Council’s remit over threats to peace and security extended to what was happening inside sovereign nations, there is legal grounds for Security Council intervention.
There is clearly present need, unless the world is prepared to stand by and watch massacres of disloyal Libyans. And of course, one of the problems with the US as a self-appointed instrument in this case is that Washington seems neutral about not dissimilar events in Bahrain, Yemen or even in Gaza, preferring to arm the perpetrators and provide some measure of diplomatic protection. The sudden US rediscovery of Libyan tyranny is also somewhat problematic, as indeed are its previous military attacks on Libya.
Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN spoke eloquently, and from her previous record, probably sincerely, about the need for intervention. However, a few weeks before she had with deep insincerity cast a veto expressing her own and American opinion on Israel’s repression and breaches of international law in the West Bank!
Even accepting the motive, method is a problem. Consistently in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the US has shown a predilection for high technology ariel warfare and shown a propensity to risk civilian life rather put its own military at risk. Even in Kosovo, which most of the locals consider gratefully to have been a “good” war, President Clinton’s refusal to countenance ground forces or risk American casualties by bombing from below 15,000 feet incurred unnecessary casualties and eroded international support, while not frightening Serb leader Milosevic in the slightest.
In Libya, it might be different. Clearly identifiable columns of government forces trailing along the few passable roads along the coast would make an easily identifiable targets. But US over-caution, in wanting to take out Libya’s negligible air defences before acting could easily involve serious mistakes and casualties. No one who saw the WikiLeaks video of the helicopter gunning down journalists in Baghdad is going take the sensitivity of the US military for granted. We do not want Benghazi destroyed to save it.
On the positive side, decisive intervention would send a clear message to Gaddafi’s forces, largely one might presume motivated by fear of reprisals from the regime that there were speedier and worse consequences than that, or indeed an eventual trip to International Criminal Court in The Hague.
As to motive, one of the reasons that Russia has been reluctant to consider a military option, apart from its own bugbears like Chechnya, has been Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s personal experience of American arrogance in times past. Moscow supported intervention against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait, and then as UN Ambassador he was consistently snubbed and humiliated by the US and UK as they pursued the resolutions, the sanctions, the air strikes and the rest, far beyond the intention of the resolutions or the will of the majority of the Security Council.
So, immediate surgery is needed. It would be best to find a more trusted surgeon, but if Jack the Ripper has the only scalpels, what do you do?
Just before the vote I suggested that there are two elements that should be considered in any such UN resolution, both to get Russian and maybe even Chinese support, and to reassure many others around the world.
The first is to ensure a sunset clause. Any mandate for military action should have precise limitations both about the nature of operations and a time limit. It should return to the Council within days or weeks for a renewal of authority. Secondly, there is a need to ensure that there is some element of shared control over operations. After the Rwanda and Srebrenica debacles no one, including the UN Secretariat itself, would or should entrust this task to international civil servants. But a subcommittee of the Security Council, or even a revival of the long somnolent UN Military Staff Committee, of representatives of the Permanent Five members should provide some reassurance against irrational exuberance on the part of the Pentagon. The machinery is there just waiting reactivation. Indeed the Pentagon has a Military Staff Committee whose purpose is to liaise with the UN body.
It is possible that these might have averted some of the abstentions, but certainly the language of the resolution, invoking constant reporting to and monitoring by the Security Council and the Secretary General, averted the otherwise inevitable vetoes. Ban Ki Moon’s principled stands on the region’s regimes over the last few months, for which he has had insufficient credit, suggests he will certainly take the job seriously.
Those who are opposed to intervention on principle will of course continue to do so. But the Libyan opposition, who have asked for help, are the ones who will pay the price for others’ high-mindedness. Pragmatic mandates could help.