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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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One can certainly fault the Obama administration’s decision to avoid obtaining congressional approval for the Libyan adventure, as well as the high-handed legal sophistry the administration employed to deny that its “limited military action” amounted to engagement in “hostilities.” One could fairly say that the administration was more scrupulous about dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on international law and legitimacy than it was domestically. But from the point of view of effective international action, “model intervention” seems more than mere hubris.


Alas, poor Syria. Many commentators have hastened to point out that Assad’s Syria and Qaddafi’s Libya have nothing in common. They are right—except for their brutally repressive rulers willing to massacre their own people.

A Security Council resolution tightening sanctions on Syria was impossible thanks to Russian and Chinese vetoes. The International Criminal Court prosecutor cannot begin an investigation of the Assad regime’s atrocities in the absence of a Security Council resolution because Syria is not a member of the court. The Arab League, said to be wary after the transmogrification of its request for protection for the Libyan rebels into a mandate for using NATO to hunt Qaddafi down, has been dithering over the extent of its opposition to Assad.

NATO’s political decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, has apparently been unable to agree even to discuss Syria. The NATO secretary general, speaking for whom it is impossible to say, has averred that he doesn’t “envision .  .  . a role for the alliance” in Syria and is punting back to the Arab League, in a classic exercise in responsibility avoidance. NATO defense ministers agreed last March that the criteria for NATO intervention (assuming the means are available) are demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and regional support. Point one has undeniably been met, but the second criterion is a major hurdle without a U.N. resolution.

As matters stand, intervention in Syria would be anything but a “model.” The real question for the Obama administration, however, is whether Libya has set a standard for intervention so pristine as to render the United States incapable of action in the absence of perfect conditions. Time is running out for the administration to demonstrate otherwise.

By all means, the United States should press (and presumably is pressing) to alter the conditions creating the current blockage. The Syrian opposition should formally ask NATO for help. So should the Arab League. Washington should gather a coalition of the willing around protective military action by CENTCOM, the U.S. command in the Middle East. The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court should step forward to formally ask the Security Council for a resolution granting the court jurisdiction over Assad’s crimes. More and varied pressure needs to be applied to the Arab League. Russia may have a price.

These and other potential game-changers are well worth pursuing. But if the game doesn’t change, or the change falls short of “model intervention,” that doesn’t mean the United States should do nothing. It means we’ll have to lead from the front.

 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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