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A Model Intervention

Has the Libya precedent paralyzed the Obama ­administration on Syria?

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, and NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, took to the pages of the latest Foreign Affairs for an unusual but deserved victory lap over the campaign that led to the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. It was, the two argued, “a model intervention.”


Meanwhile in Homs, they line up their dead.


They are right, it was. But with the carnage continuing in Homs and elsewhere as the Bashar al-Assad regime tries to crush the popular uprising threatening his hold on Syria, it seems that U.S. policy toward Syria has become a prisoner of our “model intervention” in Libya. If the purpose of U.S. policy in Syria is to prevent more slaughter of civilians, to give Assad a push out the door, and incidentally to deal Iran a major strategic setback, it’s time to put aside the Libya “model.” The political and diplomatic conditions under which the Libya intervention unfolded were all but uniquely favorable—the only other contender for the title would be that in which George H. W. Bush organized the intervention to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990-91. If we insist on duplicating the Libya model for intervention in Syria, Assad will have all the time he needs to wipe out the rebellion, at who knows what human cost.

From the standpoint of international law and legitimacy, Libya had it all. First came U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970, unanimously adopted in February 2011 as Qaddafi’s repression against the nascent Libyan opposition began to intensify. It deplored Qaddafi’s “gross and systematic violation of human rights” and demanded an end to the violence; imposed an arms embargo on the regime and a travel ban and asset freeze on Qaddafi and his closest cronies; and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation into atrocity crimes. It’s likely that many hoped Resolution 1970 by itself would persuade Qaddafi to head for an exit. That hope was misplaced if not naïve, but the unanimous resolution paved the way for follow-up action once Qaddafi chose defiance.

The Arab League, the regional organization whose secretary general had already announced the suspension of Libya’s membership, in March took the unprecedented further step of calling on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone. Though stopping well short of a call for international military action to aid in Qaddafi’s overthrow, the Arab League request was a diplomatic milestone in establishing regional support for outside intervention against an Arab state.

Meanwhile, France and Great Britain took the lead in calling for military action to save the imperiled Libyan opposition. Although the position of U.S. allies on point led one anonymous Obama administration official notoriously to dub the administration’s posture “leading from behind,” there likely were diplomatic advantages in having someone besides the United States as chief proponent of a new round of military intervention in the greater Middle East.

Galvanized in part by the Arab League request, in part by the advance of Qaddafi’s forces on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi and Qaddafi’s rhetoric promising to destroy the resistance there, and in the last analysis by the Obama administration’s eleventh-hour determination to press at the U.N. for a new resolution authorizing military action to protect the Libyan opposition from slaughter, the Security Council on March 17 passed Resolution 1973, citing the “need to protect” civilians from Qaddafi’s forces and authorizing “all necessary measures.” The Russians were skeptical and the Chinese wary, but neither chose to exercise their veto, instead abstaining.

The prosecutor at the ICC, meanwhile, moving at record speed, on June 27 obtained a warrant for the arrest of Qaddafi, his son Saif, and his secret police chief on charges of crimes against humanity. In diplomatic circles in Washington and among allies, the ICC warrant served as a proxy delegitimizer for the Qaddafi regime overall, bridging the gap between the Security Council resolution authorizing civilian protection and the avowed goal of the United States, France, and Great Britain, namely, that Qaddafi must go.

Then came the decision of NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, to take charge of the operation. The result was a successful campaign in which France and Britain, among other allies, participated at a level some might have believed beyond their capabilities. It ended with Qaddafi dead and zero NATO casualties.

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