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The U.N. Effect

Obama’s quest for ‘international legitimacy’ makes for a dishonest Libya policy

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The Obama administration’s bumbling over Libya is largely a product of the dual position in which the United States now finds itself. We are on one hand the world’s biggest power, uniquely capable of entertaining the audacious idea of protecting civilians in far-away places from the depredations of their own governments​—​moreover, of making a statement like “Qaddafi must go” and having it mean something, both in terms of pressuring Qaddafi and by heavily vesting the United States in the outcome. If the American president says Qaddafi has to go and he ends up staying, the United States has a problem on its hands that is much larger than Qaddafi himself. 

On the other hand, the United States has also placed itself in the position of implementer-in-chief of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. We wanted it; we got it; we cite it as authority for our actions. And what do you know? It doesn’t align itself at all well with the proposition that Qaddafi must go. The resolution forms an excellent basis for a no-fly zone and for civilian protection, but beyond that, we are at best in a very gray area.

When Obama gave his televised speech explaining U.S. policy, he was a president divided against himself. He was at pains to reconcile a U.S. policy of enforcement of a U.N. resolution and a U.S. policy seeking the ouster of Qaddafi by, presumably, some means other than the enforcement of the U.N. resolution but not in contradiction to it. This is not an easy thing to do.

“Of course,” said the president, as if there were anything “of course” about it, “there is no question that Libya​—​and the world​—​will be better off with Qaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through nonmilitary means. But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” That’s because, among other things, we have a “U.N. mandate” only for civilian protection and a no-fly zone (and if we had taken no action, the “writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security”). Trying to “overthrow Qaddafi by force” would likely splinter the coalition gathered around the implementation of 1973 and require U.S. “troops on the ground” to avoid inflicting civilian casualties from the air. Such a course would be too risky and too costly: too Iraq-like.

So we are for regime change, but not through a military mission. The president left unsaid the point that our scruples do not prevent us from favoring regime change through use of our clandestine assets in support of the rebels, and that the CIA operatives now reportedly in Libya do not go in unarmed. The president reiterated what we have a U.N. mandate for, but he assiduously did not concede that under 1973, pursuit of regime change altogether, including by covert “kinetic means,” is forbidden. Nor did he rule out a “broaden[ed] .  .  . military mission” short of “regime change.”

Let’s skip to the extreme case: Okay, we don’t want to send our army in to topple Qaddafi. And indeed, we can’t under the terms of 1973, which authorizes “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 [emphasis added].” So that’s out, right? Except, well, what if we recognized the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya? What if they asked us for help? We would be responding not as occupiers but as allies. If Qaddafi didn’t like it, he could always try going to the Security Council to get a resolution to stop us.

Now, as it happens, there is much that President Obama should not say even if he could comfortably say it, including anything and everything along the speculative lines of the previous paragraph. But there is also much that he apparently believes but cannot comfortably say straightforwardly, out of fidelity to his U.N. diplomacy. At least one hopes so, and that the wiggle room he maintained in his speech is a joint product of his conviction that Qaddafi really must go and his unwillingness to tell the American people an outright lie for the sake of upholding U.N. appearances (as might the French).

His administration’s U.N. diplomacy was adroit and is in some respects admirable, but not for its contribution to the American tradition of candor in foreign policy.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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