Tag Archives: United Nations Security Council

Libya? Really, Libya?

23 Mar

Surprise! We’re back to the Shock and Awe, knock-down-the-door, Tomahawk and JDAM war the US military in general, and Air Force and Navy in particular, like so much. Things are going swimmingly well in Libya because we’re still doing the parts we’re really good at. What comes next? If President Obama knows, he’s not saying, except that we won’t be in charge much longer (turns out the French never really were in charge after all, they just started the war first without talking to everyone). His War Powers Act clock is at 54 days and counting, but more on Obama’s failures in a moment.

Any public discussion of the fiasco in Libya seems to conform to a formula in three parts: two major – the question of whether to intervene, and the handling of the issue by the President – and one minor. Before I get to the major issues, let me dispense with the minor one.

The most insignificant portion of this issue is the hypocrisy watch all observers find themselves under, as the spectre of Iraq still looms, and our national politics are still played under broad Obama|Bush banners. For the record, I was for our action in Bosnia and Kosovo, because genocide was not a potential, but an ongoing horror. I was for intervention in conflicts we never stepped into, such as Rwanda. I was for the “little wars” of Clinton, in Iraq and Afghanistan in 1998, and wanted even more action because trouble seemed on the horizon and violence was escalating (embassy bombings, the USS Cole after, etc). I was for the invasion of Afghanistan at the time, because I was pissed, pro-Iraq War at the start, and pro-Surge as the best possible way to extricate ourselves from a bad situation. But now? A final analysis is complicated, as is inevitable when a war is personalized, and you find yourself invested in a very non-academic way. Lately, I find myself a recovering interventionist.

I say all of that as background to help you judge the following statement: what in God’s name are we doing in Libya? Have we gained no humility about the limits of US power, and learned nothing about picking sides in a tribal war, misunderstanding your enemy or allies, the limits of the capability of no-fly zones, and the grave responsibility of joining a war?

What are we doing in Libya? There is an ideological answer, and a realpolitik one. Both fail to pursuade, though (as is fundamental to its nature) the realpolitik answer is at least more pragmatic.

The ideologues, such as genocide expert and White House staffer Samantha Power, will tell you we must intervene in Libya because the international community can not stand by while a dictator murders his own people. While this sounds nice, it provides few practical specifics and is blatantly untrue. We stand by and watch dictators murder their own people all the time. In fact, we are currently doing so in Yemen, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Sudan, Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe and the Congo, just to name the worst. In each of those cases, far more people have been murdered over far longer of a time. “The International Community” is in a tizzy over a city being without power for a week or two in Libya. In Zimbabwe and the Congo, the slaughter has gone on for decades. In addition, such mushy aims lead to the questions Americans are currently asking: are we trying to kill Qaddafi? Who are the rebels (as a commentator from STRATFOR put it, who knew 6 weeks ago there even was a Libyan opposition)? Are we on their side? What is a civilian? Can we kill civilians to protect civilians? What if the no-fly zone doesn’t stop the conflict? What are our goals? What are the conditions that will allow us to be done? If Obama knows, he’s not telling.

With the ideological answer either wanting or ineffectual, one is left with the realpolitik answer. Here, the water is murkier. Khadafi has been alternatingly an international pariah and our ally strongman. He perpetrated some of the worst terrorist attacks against Europeans and Americans in the 1980’s, but he also was held up as the model of the reformed autocrat in the 2000’s, unilaterally disavowing his nuke program, shrugging off UN sanctions in 2003, and making amends with the Brits, such that they controversially released a Lockerbie conspirator only two years ago. In short, he was a neutral party (and occasional ally against Al Qaeda) much more recently than he was persona non grata.

So why Libya now? Besides the need to secure oil for Western Europe, the unspoken realpolitik answer is Iran. Through the eyes of the international geopolitical chess-player, the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa go something like this. The January immolation and uprising in Tunisia was a genuine cry for help by the “Arab Street.” The events since, however, that were thus set in motion have been pre-planned coups and proxy battles that used the street protests as cover. Mubarak fell because the Egyptian military ousted him, payback for him wanting to install his non-military son in power instead of the next general in line, as the military regime has done for 60 years. Protests in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain are actually battles between Shia and Sunni, with Iran funding and provoking the protestors and Saudi Arabia coming to the aid of the Sunni regimes in power. The US does not condemn the actions in those countries, or establish a no-fly zone over Bahrain, because we are actually opposing Iran, and want the protests in those country’s crushed. Libya is thus another proxy, a convenient way of showing Iran that America can walk and chew gum at the same time, or bomb one country while stuck in a ground war with two others. It also lowers the bar for military intervention, and allows us to potentially act to protect our national interests (read: seize oil fields, violently open the Straits of Hormuz, allow Israel to bomb Iran’s nuke program) in a much more flagrant way.

Under this explanation, President Obama would rightly see Libya as a side-show. Perhaps that explains why he is treating it as such, aloof and seemingly uninvolved. Which brings us to the second major issue – Obama’s disappointment as Commander-in-Chief. Afghanistan is adrift – it has been months since we heard anything consequential on that decade long conflict. Now his eye is off the ball again. Whatever is going on inside his head on the topic of Libya, ideological, realpolitik or political, we do not know because he has not said. Little consultation with Congress other than a cattle round-up conference call. No evening address to the American people. It displays a lack of seriousness with the military task at hand – he has publically spoken about sending our forces into a new war as much as he would about the EPA making a regulatory rule change. 

To say nothing of the utter hypocrisy. Candidate Obama in 2007 said:

The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.

What made him change his mind in this case? In fact, what made him change his mind in the last ten days? Two weeks ago mainstream liberals were lampooning “neocons” for trying to drag us into another war, and the prospect of intervention in Libya was laughable. At the end of February his Defense Secretary said he should have his head examined to get into another conflict in the Middle East, and later, on the topic of Libya, said a no-fly zone meant open war (implying it should be avoided, or at least not taken lightly). In a matter of days, Obama had, as David Gergen said today, a “head snapping reversal of policy.”

Bush was criticized for changing his mind about why we invaded Iraq (WMDs to Democracy) after the conflict began. I suppose one way to avoid that charge is to have no position at all. Going to the UN Security Council does not mean he is slow, indecisive or wussy to let the Europeans lead (though, like we said, they aren’t really leading, and now France and Italy are now bickering about who is doing what). Rather, Obama’s issue with going to the UN is that he used it as a substitute for planning or forming a policy. The UN confers precious little legitimacy anyway – a Security Council resolution simply means Russia and China do not have sufficient economic or political interests to interfere if the West wishes to additionally bankrupt itself on another expensive excursion. In this case, a veneer of legality is being substituted for substance.

When Obama returns from South America, we will probably have a policy speech explaining our goals in Libya . . . justification for the bombing after it began. In the meantime, The Daily Show describes the mess well:

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Libya isn’t Iraq

20 Mar

I was not a supporter of the Iraq war because the United Nations never approved or otherwise sanctioned the use of force against Iraq. I am a strong believer in the United Nations, it being the only legitimate entity where the world’s nation-states can meet to discuss and solve international crises.  (This post isn’t about the efficacy or efficiency of the United Nations, nor is it an invitation to people to start in about one world government or other John Birch Society talking points).

Despite historical revisionism, the stated reason why the United States invaded Iraq had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein’s brutality; the stated justification for the invasion was that Hussein had violated United Nations sanctions, no-fly zones, and above all, continued to maintain and pursue an active campaign to seek and build a catastrophic arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell disgraced himself forever when he took to the Security Council to seek that body’s approval to use military force against Iraq for its alleged failure to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which was a final chance for Hussein to abide by past disarmament commitments.  1441 was passed unanimously, but did not authorize the use of force without further Security Council action.  Instead, it authorized the creation of UNMOVIC, which commenced a series of inspections, which Hussein famously jerked around and obstructed for the sake of jerking around and obstructing; he had no active WMD program.

The US, Britain, and Spain met in March 2003 and decided independently that Hussein had violated 1441, and that the invasion would commence.  No Security Council resolution was ever introduced or voted on to authorize the use of force, as it would clear that at least one of its permanent members would veto it.  Kofi Annan, the UN’s Secretary-General, said in 2004 that in the UN’s eyes, the war in Iraq was illegal.

The war in Iraq was all about ideology, lies, mistakes, and using 9/11 as a pretext to complete unfinished business from the early 1990s.

By contrast, 2011 seems to be to the Arab world something similar to what the world saw in eastern Europe in 1989. Mass demonstrations and revolutions have sprung up among average citizens to overthrow corrupt mafia regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, with smaller conflagrations in Jordan and Syria. The United States’ chief ally in the Middle East is Israel, and we often see affairs in that region through a “how will this affect Israel” prism.  That’s legitimate, and many have tried to foment domestic opposition to the Arab uprisings by suggesting that these places would all become latter-day Afghanistan Taliban regimes. That ignores how comparatively cosmopolitan and stable Tunisia and Egypt are compared with an Afghanistan that’s been in political, economic, social, and military crisis almost non-stop since the 1970s.

If the Arab uprising is their 1989, then longtime madman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has practiced a weird sort of pseudo-Socialism with a strong cult of personality in that country since taking power in 1969, is their Ceausescu. He has plunged that country into a civil war, ordering his military to turn its guns on his own people.  Being mindful of the fact that he took power via coup, he had kept that country’s military deliberately weak, so he has employed the services of foreign mercenaries to destroy the rebellion.

On March 17th, the United Nations Security Council took up and passed Resolution 1973, authorizing the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya, to halt Gaddafi’s bombing of his own population.  It was a second step after Resolution 1970, which called on Gaddafi to stop harming civilians. It includes an arms embargo and an assets freeze.

The resolution was brought about thanks to a Security Council resolution voted on in the United Nations.  It specifically and explicitly authorizes the use of force taking place now in Libya, and the US is participating.  It came about thanks to the urging and support of the members of the Arab League, and the US has not taken the lead in this matter, letting regional actors do so instead – notably France. The stated primary purpose of the resolution and resultant action is legal, sanctioned, and has the stated goal of preventing Libya from using its military and hired mercenaries from murdering its own civilians.

This has no parallel with the Iraq war, and more closely resembles NATO and UN action taken in Kosovo and Bosnia to prevent humanitarian tragedy and slaughter of civilians.