On CNN this Saturday morning, the day after the United Nations Security Council voted for Resolution 1973 (2011) to authorize a “no-fly zone” in Libya, the debate has centered around whether or not the United States and its allies want regime change in Libya. After all, a few days ago President Obama said “It’s time for Qaddafi to go.” Similarly, British Prime Minister David Cameron has declared: “It is almost impossible to envisage a future for Libya that includes him. Gaddafi must go, he has no legitimacy.”

Yet, to me, this seems like a very odd and unhelpful framing of the situation.

Certainly, opponents of the no fly zone want to frame the debate around regime change in order to question the legitimacy of the intervention. For instance, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies asserts that “it’s widely understood that a no-fly zone is most often the first step towards broader military engagement.” However, I would challenge that view. The U.S. for many years helped enforce a no-fly zone in Iraq that was eventually controversial and certainly was not the key stepping stone that legitimized war in Iraq. The Bush administration likely would have pursued war on Iraq even without a no fly zone. And much of the world opposed the war in Iraq precisely because it violated international norms about the use of force.

Bennis also worries about the authorization of “all necessary measures..to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” She sees this as a virtual blank check for broader military intervention, though she overlooks the last clause. Contrast this provision to the much broader language in UNSC Resolution 678 (1990), which authorized the Persian Gulf war:

Authorizes Member States co-operating with the Government of Kuwait, unless Iraq on or before 15 January 1991 fully implements, as set forth in paragraph 1 above, the above-mentioned resolutions, to use all necessary means to uphold and implement resolution 660 (1990) and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area.

The more recent Resolution focuses narrowly on protecting civilians, not the far broader goal of restoring international peace and security. That goal seemingly required ground troops in Kuwait since that is where Saddam Hussein’s forces had gone.

Bennis blames the US for the inclusion of the “all necessary measures” language, as America worried that a simple no fly zone really would not protect civilians on the ground. She overlooks the fact that this is a completely valid point. The no fly zone in southern Iraq after the Persian Gulf war concluded did not stop Saddam Hussein from slaughtering civilians. In this case, simply keeping Libyan government planes out of the air might not protect any civilians. The new resolution authorizes air strikes against tanks or other government ground forces that would otherwise attack civilians.

Put differently, this is more like Kosovo 1998 than Iraq 2003. In that successful application of military force, NATO intervened with air power, but the UNSC did not pass a supporting resolution. Presumably, UN cooperation this time will help assure limits on enforcement actions. That’s hardly a blank check.

Indeed, as CNN analysts pointed out, the U.S., France and NATO partners know that the Arab partners in the military intervention — reportedly Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — likely do not support external intervention to pursue regime change in Libya. Likewise, the 1991 enforcement action against Iraq did not include regime change exactly because the Arab member-states would have opposed it.

Moreover, President Obama himself has already said that U.S. intervention in Libya will be quite limited, which likely makes any regime change something that will be left up to competing forces within Libya.

I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing. The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.

Could that be any clearer?

In the discussion I heard, some CNN announcers strongly implied that French President Sarkozy supports regime change. For evidence of this, they offered Sarkozy’s call for fairly direct intervention in support of the Libyan rebels:

“Our air force will oppose any aggression by Colonel Gadhafi against the population of Benghazi,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking after an international, top-level meeting in Paris over the Libyan crisis.

“As of now, our aircraft are preventing planes from attacking the town,” he said. “As of now, our aircraft are prepared to intervene against tanks.”

Yet, this framing completely distorts the facts. Sarkozy explicitly does not advocate regime change:

“We are determined to take all necessary action, including military consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1973 to ensure compliance with all its requirements, ” Mr Sarkozy said.

He said the aim of intervention was not regime change but to “allow the Libyan people to choose their own destiny”.

“We are protecting the population from the murderous madness of the regime.”

That too seems fairly clear.

I think this entire discussion would be more useful if the U.S. and international media framed the debate around the Responsibility to Protect. UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon certainly used this framework:

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), “a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

“Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government,” he said.

Though Obama did not use the R2P phrase, his speech about the latest UN action also largely used this frame.

Our decisions have been driven by Qaddafi’s refusal to respect the rights of his people, and the potential for mass murder of innocent civilians. It is not an action that we will pursue alone. Indeed, our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, have already committed to take a leadership role in the enforcement of this resolution, just as they were instrumental in pursuing it. We are coordinating closely with them. And this is precisely how the international community should work, as more nations bear both the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law.

The problem critics share, I suspect, is that the Bush administration often used humanitarian claims to justify its intervention in Iraq. R2P was not completely undermined by their rhetoric, but the recent experience does make some members of the the international community and many policy analysts skeptical of great power claims about R2P or humanitarian intervention.

Ultimately, I think some skepticism is healthy and will help assure the limits of the authorized intervention. Perhaps this would be a good time to recall the Blair Doctrine, if that is still helpful post-Iraq. UK PM Tony Blair specifically argued that this kind of international intervention might occasionally be necessary — but it should be strictly limited by something like just war principles.

First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators. Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo. Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers. And finally, do we have national interests involved? The mass expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo demanded the notice of the rest of the world. But it does make a difference that this is taking place in such a combustible part of Europe.

Blair was calling for workable international action. “If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation,” he argued, “then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.”

I think that’s the case here. It would have been better if the states could have crafted a truly unanimous resolution, rather than one that led some key states to abstain. Nonetheless, the UNSC has authorized a limited form of humanitarian intervention into Libya in hopes of preventing government slaughter of civilians.

Similar timely action in Rwanda might have saved at least 100,000 lives — if not several times that many.

If the operational aims broaden or the implementation is bungled, then reluctant supporters like me are certainly free to demand fealty to promised limits.

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