The United Nations Security Council, after days of debate, passed Resolution 1973 on March 17th, which authorized member states to impose a no-fly zone in Libya and to “take all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack by Col. Moammar Qaddafi’s forces, including the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. In addition to authorizing the use of military force if necessary under Article VII of the UN Charter, the resolution, passed with ten votes in favor and five countries abstaining (Russia, China, Brazil, Germany and India), includes provisions calling for an immediate ceasefire, a beefed up arms embargo, a ban on certain flights, and expanded asset freezes. However, the resolution explicitly rules out any “occupation force” in Libya.
The U.S. was a follower in this case, waiting for international consensus to emerge rather than helping to shape it. The Obama administration took a full month to come around and support a military response to Qaddafi’s gross atrocities against his own people. After the Arab League made a formal request to the Security Council for imposition of a no-fly zone on March 12th, France and Lebanon took the lead in moving the latest Security Council resolution forward. France even sent its newly appointed foreign minister Alain Juppe to New York to make a personal appeal for passage of the resolution.
Now that the international community has finally spoken and there is a framework under international law for the use of military force against the Libyan regime, the serious work has begun. All considerations now turn to implementing the resolution in time to save more innocent Libyans from slaughter. Allied warplanes have since gone into action in an effort to stop Qaddafi’s aggression and push him back. American Tomahawk cruise missiles have also been fired at targets inside Libya from ships in the Mediterranean Sea, striking Qaddafi’s air-defense and communications systems and facilities. But these actions may well be too late, particularly if Qaddafi’s forces enter Benghazi, intermingle with civilians, and use them as human shields.
There are several big questions that the Security Council resolution does little to resolve:
First, what exactly does it mean when the resolution declares there will be no “occupation force” in Libya? One thinks of ground forces or, as they are colloquially referred to, “boots on the ground.” But this begs the question. For example, would search and rescue missions on the ground be permitted if pilots are shot down? Are Special Forces entering Libya solely to collect intelligence for the purpose of enabling more accurate air strikes considered an “occupation force”? When reporters at UN headquarters tried to get clarification from various delegations before and after the Security Council vote, we were rebuffed.
Second, what does a real ceasefire mean in dealing with Qaddafi? How could it possibly be monitored? Qaddafi’s government had announced right after the UN Security Council vote that it would abide by a ceasefire, only to quickly break it. In letters to President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Qaddafi made his intentions clear:
Libya is not yours. Libya is for the Libyans. The Security Council resolution is invalid.
On March 19th – two days after the UN Security Council passed its resolution – Qaddafi’s forces, tanks and warplanes swarmed Benghazi. There have been reports of shelling, gunfire and at least twenty-five fatalities in the rebel stronghold. If Qaddafi were to now truly stand down under withering fire from the international coalition and honor a cease fire, what then?
This brings us to the third question in connection with implementing the UN Security Council resolution. What is the eventual endgame? France is the only Western government so far to have formally recognized Libya’s rebels as the country’s legitimate government.
President Obama has stated that Qaddafi must go. However, unless he is forced to go and an interim government is formed and immediately recognized by the international community, there will be a long stalemate that will work in Qaddafi’s favor. Are we really prepared to babysit a de facto fragmentation of Libya into two or more parts by continuing to provide an open-ended shield to millions of people living in fear side by side with Qaddafi, who would remain in power next door? Are we prepared to take sides in what may amount to a prolonged civil war, or will we leave the rebels to their own devices in a matter of days or weeks? Qaddafi will simply wait it out, counting on the international community’s short attention span.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is said to have persuaded President Obama to support military intervention in Libya in the first place, appears to back regime change. She said:
We do believe a final result of any negotiations would have to be a decision by Colonel Khadafy to leave.
However, Obama’s latest pronouncement on the use of military force to stop Qaddafi’s murder of civilians stopped short of using force to compel Qaddafi to leave, if necessary. Obama said on March 18th that “we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal – specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen said on March 20th that the mission he is overseeing is narrowly focused on ensuring humanitarian support for the civilians. He said that this mission could be achieved even if Qaddafi stayed in power.
The problem is that civilians are not safe in Libya unless Qaddafi leaves and his repressive apparatus is dismantled. But he will not leave voluntarily.
Here is what Qaddafi said on Al-Jamahiriya TV (Libya) on March 15, 2011, as transcribed by the Middle East Media Research Institute:
They began saying that Al-Qadhafi must resign. Resign from what?! You should resign, you criminals, you colonialists. You resign! I dare them to grant their people freedom, like the freedom I granted the Libyan people. I dare them to. I dare them to. I dare them to grant freedom to the American, the British, and the French peoples. Let’s see them give up their seats. Let’s see them resign and let their people govern themselves. They should never do it. They rule their people through dictatorial means: a republican party, a democratic party, a Christian party, a centrist party, a right-wing party, a left-wing party… These are dictatorial, capitalist means that grind peoples.
Qaddafi will not leave until enough of his own military and other armed supporters defect, and enough of his military infrastructure and encampments are destroyed to put his personal security in jeopardy. We need not and should not deploy ground troops into Libya, as the President has said. However, we have enough air power that can be directed at Qaddafi’s own fortifications, military installations, tanks, rocket launchers and aircraft to intimidate his military and ultimately facilitate his passage into the dustbin of history. The question is how long it will take and whether the international coalition will remain united in the meantime. For example, although the African countries Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, including its authorization of military force against Libya to save civilian lives, the African Union has since criticized the launching of military operations by U.S. and European countries to enforce this very resolution.
How long will the Arab League, which asked for enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, continue to support military force that results in deaths of their Arab brothers?
Finally, the stakes are bigger than just Qaddafi’s fate alone. Who exactly are the rebels whom we have elected to help? What ties, if any, do some of them have to radical Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and even al Qaeda that may turn out to be a more serious strategic threat to U.S. interests than Qaddafi?
Moreover, Iran is watching. While condemning Qaddafi’s crackdown on the Libyan people and at the same time denying any such repression of dissent by the Iranian regime against its own people, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Western powers early last week against imposing a no-fly zone or taking other military action in Libya.
Conventional wisdom would lead to the conclusion that a strong international community response to the crack-down in Libya might deter Iran from engaging in similar crack-downs in the future against its own dissidents and give it some pause on moving ahead with its nuclear program in defiance of a succession of UN Security Council resolutions. However, despite Ahmadinejad’s public pronouncement against outside intervention against Qaddafi, its Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese neighbor took a leading role in getting the UN Security Council to move against Libya. Iran could have used its considerable leverage over Lebanon to prevent the latter from becoming the Arab face pushing the Security Council resolution forward if it really wanted to. Evidently, Iran chose not to do so.
Rather, I think that Iran sees Libya as a helpful diversion while it moves ahead in the shadows with its nuclear program. Given the difficulty in galvanizing the international community to finally move ahead with action to stop Qaddafi, Iran may be calculating that there will be little appetite for any similar move against Iran. While Russia and China ended up abstaining on the Libyan resolution after expressing their strong reservations about military intervention, they will be far more likely to veto any similar resolution against Iran where they have stronger strategic interests. And Iran has seen how reluctant Obama is to use force even with Security Council authorization.
Iran is also likely to score propaganda points by claiming the West is hypocritical in allowing protestors against its allied governments, such as in Yemen and Bahrain, to be killed without any similar efforts to stop the violence. Indeed, the day after the passage of the latest Security Council resolution on Libya, a senior Iranian cleric urged Bahrain’s majority Shiites to keep up their protests – until death or victory – against the Sunni monarchy. He accused the United States of being an “accomplice in all crimes.” Iran has threatened to intervene unilaterally in Bahrain if the UN does not take any action soon. If that happens, an all-out war could break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has sent its own troops into its immediately adjoining neighbor to restore order.
No doubt, there are troubling inconsistencies in the U.S. position in the region as we try to juggle our democratic values with our vital national security interests. But allowing Iran an entree into Bahrain directly, or indirectly through its terrorist network’s provision of support to the internal revolt, would serve neither U.S. values nor U.S. interests. The United States 5th Fleet in Bahrain helps counter Iran’s military reach across the entire region, which Iran would love nothing better than to get rid of. The uprising in Bahrain provides Iran with a perfect opportunity to exploit.
While the present monarchy in Bahrain is certainly far from a model of democracy, do the people in Bahrain really prefer an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy to replace it? They only need look at how the Iranian government and mullahs brutally deal with their own protestors through executions, imprisonment and torture to discern their own fate under an Iran-friendly Shiite regime in Bahrain.
Had the Obama administration taken the lead several weeks ago in assembling a broad coalition, including the Arab League, while Qaddafi appeared to be on the ropes but continued slaughtering his own people, we may have been able to facilitate a quick regime change and had more influence in what followed. But this administration, as usual, waited until events pushed it into a corner and has made the final outcome far more uncertain and perilous.
Joseph Klein is the author of a recent book entitled Lethal Engagement: Barack Hussein Obama, the United Nations and Radical Islam.
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