Kofi Annan's resignation from the United Nations mission charged with negotiating an end to the Syrian carnage confirmed what was obvious from the start: the effort was doomed to failure. Its endless rounds of futile talks were clearly destined to do nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad. The mission’s very existence provided cover for the Obama administration and others to avoid taking serious action lest they disrupt his delicate negotiations.
Annan and the U.N. have a rich experience with international hand wringing and passivity in the face of humanitarian atrocities. In 1994, he headed the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, which turned tail and left when the violence started. More than 800,000 were killed in that conflagration, but Annan had learned little by the time he served as the U.N.’s special representative to the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1996. In that conflict, which ultimately cost 250,000 lives, the Bosnian Serbs hid behind blue-helmeted U.N. observers to commit their crimes against humanity.
President Obama could have done in Syria what he is now proud to claim he did in Libya. He could have put in motion the national and international machinery to stop, or at least impede, the wanton slaughter by Assad’s criminal regime. He could still act to prevent the killing of thousands more.
France and Britain were the first to call for international intervention to save the Libyan population from Muammar Qaddafi’s onslaught. Washington held back for over a month as the death toll mounted until the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council gave their imprimatur to Western intervention. The result was Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing member states “to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi.” Washington interpreted it to mean only Benghazi.
Yet, the Security Council and NATO were reluctant to state the obvious—that the only way to protect the Libyan people against the ravages of Qaddafi’s killing machine was to get rid of the regime. The confusion was nowhere more evident than in Washington, to which the world looked for leadership. When the president finally yielded to international pressure he made clear that the U.S. role would be limited to enforcing a no-fly zone for only “a matter of days, not weeks.” And he kept that ill-advised commitment, halting the U.S. flights well before they had completed the mission of protecting Libyan civilians from the regime’s attacks. The irony is that the Western effort, which failed for months at its declared mission to protect Libya’s civilians, finally succeeding at the objective it disclaimed: the overthrow of Qaddafi.
Henry Kissinger cited the Libya experience in a Washington Post op-ed opposing “outside intervention to bring about regime change [in Syria], overturning prevalent notions of international order.” Kissinger argued that since we cannot intervene in all humanitarian crises, we should act in none. “Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government, including those heretofore considered important in sustaining the international system?”
Kissinger warned that “regime change, almost by definition, generates an imperative for nation-building [or] the international order itself begins to disintegrate.” He cited Libya as an example of the “lawlessness” that will ensue and warns “[It] may yet happen in Syria.” And yet contrary to Kissinger’s warnings, the Libyan people went to the polls for their first free election in 60 years and chose a democratic party over the Islamists.
Like Annan, the U.N., and Obama, Kissinger is also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He may be wrong in his pessimism regarding the prospects for peaceful, democratic transitions after humanitarian interventions, but his position compares favorably with the moral invocations of politicians and international diplomats who fail to back up their pious proclamations with meaningful action. At least with realists like Kissinger, the people of Syria and other countries who plead for international intervention know where they stand—alone.