Notebook, 15 September 2012: No Time to be Bitter Anymore

After seeing enough laudatory comments stemming from Michael Lewis’ Obama’s Way, I am minded to look back at what we won, and lost, when we undertook to intervene in the Libyan civil war, as well as come to a better balance on the outcomes.

One may consider that the bottom line may be that we wound up saving lives in Libya. The conduct of the intervention, characterized by NATO’s minimal footprint, was as nearly textbook perfect a mission accomplished as a modern intervention can get. Lewis’ article cites the old-guard versus the new, and that the “ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis” haunting Obama’s younger advisors, specifically Samantha Powers. A perfectly valid point to make. The recent killing of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens in Benghazi notwithstanding, narrowly speaking, the intervention was a stunning success for Western diplomacy and arms. As I wrote at the time:

I’d forgo my purity and hopes for international law (recognizing the coalescing political realities) as well as take my chances on a terrorist attack in the future, but not for a no-fly. If we’re going to flaunt international law like this, if we’re probably going to bomb anyway, I’d be more in favor of simply eliminating Gaddafi’s air force and mechanized units with a quick, decisive bombing campaign, than in putting airmen at risk day after day enforcing a no-fly with the risk of tragic accident, escalation and changing political winds.

Casualties in Libya were mercifully, thankfully few, however those are not the only casualties caused by the intervention, and this needs to be recognized right now. One such casualty stands out: as an emerging international norm, The Responsibility to Protect has all but died (as I predicted at the time that it would), and the international community is effectively ignoring R2P. I never expected to receive confirmation of this so quickly, but the ongoing tragedy in Syria is as directly connected to the intervention in Libya as the disaster in Mogadishu led to the Rwandan Genocide. On at least three occasions the United Nations Security Council rebuffed efforts to authorize a similar intervention is a conflict which has by now claimed thousands of lives.

Why such a sea change? Because edits at the last minute made to UNSC Resolution 1973 containing language allowing all measures “necessary” to fulfill the resolution’s mandate provided a loophole through which two US Marine troop ships and a battle carrier group could sail through with the French air force flying overhead. After which, it was only a matter of time the Sarkozy-Cameron-Obama troika announced that their intention was regime change rather than stick to the terms of the mandate. Now, a New U.N. bloc finds constraining the West preferable to restraining Syria.

It was never within the troika’s power to declare Gadhafi’s regime illegitimate. Even more ridiculous is this attempt by sixteen US Senators to do the same, and what this underlines is the lack of progress toward implementing the R2P norm and building the necessary international structure to do so. What should have been a finding by a world body, such as the Security Council or International Court of Justice on the legitimacy of the Gadhafi regime has degenerated into another pretext to employ armed forces.

That the NATO troika went ahead with disregard for R2P and the agreements made in the Security Council are now being paid for by the people of Syria. This needs to be admitted. The Responsibility to Protect needs to be formalized, and above all, the sovereignty bloc needs to be shaken up to get them moving.

It’s time.


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