A Turning Point in Libya – and the UN?

As of a few days ago, the situation in Libya was starting to seem hopeless. The uprising appeared to be losing it’s momentum ,as Qaddafi’s forces successfully held back the rebel’s efforts to dislodge the bloodthirsty dictator; they even began taking back cities that had fallen under the control of the “Libyan Republic,” also known as the Interim Transitional National Council. Several cities were facing protracted and confusing conflicts, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine who was winning where, and what exactly was going on.

Furthermore, as the recent events in Japan shifted the world’s attention away from the Arab uprisings, it seemed the wily Libyan autocrat (and for that matter his Bahraini counterparts) would exploit the opportunity to crush the rebels once and for all. Sitting on billions of dollars of cash, and hunkered down in his fortified headquarters,  Qaddafi had the means to keep the fight going for as long as it’d take. However tenacious and courageous the rebels may be, they would be no match for his resources, especially given his willingness to massacre entire towns in order to pacify them.

All the while, the world was contemplating the typical questions that arise in the face of such a crisis: what do we do? What should we do, if anything? How would we do it? I saw my fair share of diverse perspectives. In the non-interventionist camp was all or some of the following: that this was an internal matter, best left for the Libyans to resolve; that intervention would deligitimize their grassroots efforts; that the US should not, by principle, play the role of global police; and that any involvement would risk civilian lives and muddle us in yet another controversial and expensive Mideast quagmire.

On the other hand, many argued that the international community had an obligation to intervene, due to humanitarian concerns. Qaddafi was brutalizing his own people with mercenaries and his personal security force; the Libyan rebels began their efforts peacefully, and were only fighting to protect themselves and remove their murderous tyrant after four decades of abuse. Most interesting was the argument that the Western powers, after coddling other autocratic regimes in the region, and failing to take a meaningful stand during the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, had to atone and do what was right to help the people.

Then there was the argument concerning how to get involved. Almost no one wanted foreign boots on the ground. Rather, the prevailing idea was the enforcement of a no-fly zone, by which foreign air forces would prevent Qaddafi’s planes and gunships from attacking civilians, while also neutralizing his air defenses. This would essentially be “intervention lite” – supporting the rebels and making their efforts easier, while not taking a central role. A similar idea called for arming the rebels directly, though that didn’t seem to get much stock.

Of course, this strategy has it’s own flaws and criticism, and it’s effectiveness is debated. It’s previous uses – during the Bosnian War and in Iraq to protect the Kurds from Saddam during the 1990s – were mixed at best in terms of effectiveness. Many have pointed out that most of the fighting in Libya is occurring between ground forces, and relying on aerial assaults would be incomplete and ineffective in a largely urban conflict. Indeed, while many Libyans – and indeed Arabs throughout the region – had specifically asked for a no-fly zone, a good number also seemed uncertain or downright opposed to the idea.

In any case, all this debate seemed ultimately trivial – every humanitarian crisis spurs analysis, deliberation, and all sorts of journalistic and academic commentary. But rarely does any of it amount to any sort of meaningful policy or action. The powers that be, as well as most of their constituents, fail to seriously take action. There is a long and historic precedence for this, from Rwanda and Somalia, to the situation in Darfur.

Thankfully, this time was different.

The International Community Takes a Stand

In any unusually bold move, the United Nations Security Council approved of a resolution on March 18th calling for the enforcement of a no-fly zone and mandating that international military forces could defend embattled civilians by force (albeit only through aerial and naval means). None of the 15 members voted against the measure, although a few abstained (unsurprisingly Russia and China were among those not to support the measure, though they were widely expected to outright veto the measure rather than back down). It’s always been difficult to get international consensus on anything, let alone something as touchy as foreign intervention. This made the UN’s prompt and practically unanimous decision all the more surprising, especially considering it’s track record. While I obviously would’ve preferred such action to have been taken some weeks ago, I’m still quite pleased that it happened at all.

Following this declaration, several western powers – the US, UK, France, and Canada – commenced with their respective military operations (Operation Odyssey Dawn, Operation Ellamy, Operation Harmattan, and Operation MOBILE). France in particular has been taking a leading role in the crisis; not only was it the first to recognize the Libyan Republic as the legitimate government of the people, but it was among the first to initiate military operations and – as of my writing –  the first to take down several of Qaddafi’s forces. Nearly a dozen other mostly European countries are either directly contributing or otherwise lending their support, with several others expression their intentions to do so.

The effectiveness of all this is still too soon to determine. It’s been verified that several of Qaddafi’s assaults have been held back or thwarted, and so far there are no confirmed civilian deaths (which was a major concern).  Just recently, it was a reported that one of the dictator’s command centers was destroyed, though he remained defiant and continued to claim that he would “fight to the death.” In fact, his forces remain in control of a town near the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, despite supposedly declaring a ceasefire following the passage of the resolution. It looks like the multinational force will be in it for the long-haul, which raises concerns as to the long-term objectives of this conflict. Will Qaddafi concede defeat, or will international forces wind down in response to a protracted conflict? What comes after his fall? What do the foreign powers do then – guide the rebels and help build a new government, or back off and let them take it from there?

My Personal Take on the Subject

I’ve been musing about all these questions myself. As an international relations major, conflict – particularly with respect to humanitarian intervention – is a central topic of concern. There are all sorts of ethical and practical concerns to keep in mind, an no decision, policy, or solution is perfect or entirely acceptable.

Personally, I support intervention in Libya and currently support actions being undertaken by the UN-mandated task force. In my opinion, international involvement is warranted in the face of overwhelming human rights abuses. I understand that in practice, this is a very difficult endeavor: there are dozens of countries in which human rights are regularly abused, and to be involved in all of them militarily would be a costly and unfeasible affair. In an ideal world, we’d have the willingness to apply all of our well-equipped and idle troops to humanitarian missions. But in reality, such commitments are generally beyond what both politicians and the public would find acceptable (hence the emphasis on seeking – or creating – “strategic” or “national security” interests whenever such calls for intervention arises).

But with all that said, Libya’s situation merited particular attention: it began as a peaceful protest and escalated into a war due to Qaddafi’s own viscous predations.  After four decades of human rights abuses, as well as a long history of exporting his brutality, Qaddafi deserves to be taken out, especially now that he is weaker than ever. In any case, our level of involvement is rather small in terms of costs and risks. Supporting these courageous rebels is the least we can do given our own indifference towards – and at times tacit approval of – autocrats in the region.

In response to concerns about long-term prospects, I personally  believe that once Qaddafi is dislodged – which I think is very likely if we keep the fight going – we should leave it to the would-be rebel government to take the reigns of it’s own destiny. Libyan society is very divided, and the rebels include a slew of diverse ideological persuasions. But ultimately, they all agree that the status quo is unacceptable, suggesting that any replacement of Qaddafi is unlikely to be as autocratic and genocidal. In any case, that’s for the Libyans themselves to sort out. As with most things, I’m taking a balanced approach:  we should help the rebels insofar as we facilitate their victory and protect them from the inevitable massacre that would follow Qaddafi’s victory. But following such a victory, it’s up to Libyans themselves to take charge, with the US and other powers at best providing technical, diplomatic, and economic assistance to facilitate their transition.

Of course, I have no delusions about the nature of this intervention. I know there are cold and hard strategic reasons for international involvement; Libya’s conflict was contributing to a spike in the price of oil, for example. I also know that such a no-fly zone is no guarantee of anything, and could very well fail, perhaps taking innocent civilians down with it (collateral damage is a sad fact of any conflict, especially when it involves the use of missiles and planes in an urban setting full of irregulars).

But I also know that no human action is one-sided. I doubt all the diplomats and leaders behind this operation were in it strictly for strategic or economic reasons. I’m sure many of them followed the same logic we all do: balancing self-interest and self-preservation with altruism and sincere ethical conduct. No action is entirely self-less, but few are entirely selfish either.

Which leads me to my next subtopic.

A Watershed for the UN and  for Humanitarian Involvement?

The actions of the UN and the international community are almost unprecedented by the rather low standards of humanitarian intervention. None of my sources, much less myself,  saw this resolution coming. Even fewer believed the war averse Europe and war weary America would actually contribute as much as they have to the effort. I’m very tempted to get romantic and excited about the prospects of this becoming the first of many such resolutions calling for international contributions to defending human rights.

Alas, I must always balance my idealism with my realism. For the most part, I’m cautiously optimistic. As I noted earlier, geostrategic interests with respect to the oil supply certainly had a part to play. But I also think that the world has seen the signs: the Arab world is slowly but surely challenging the status quo of autocracy and disenfranchisement, and the powers that be don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. In a globalized and increasingly interconnected world, we can no longer afford to ignore the crises in nations halfway around the world. As other countries rise in military, economic, and political power, I expect to see the emergence of more multinational efforts such as this one.

Then again, the fact that the major developing powers – Brazil, India, and China – failed to back this resolution, bodes ill for the notion of a multi-polar world.  So has the UN’s failure in other parts of the world, where only mostly poorer nations have shown an interest in getting involved in Peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and other such endeavors.  Ultimately, all we can do is wait and see: as protests continue in Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, the UN and it’s major contributers will be challenged to act if things escalate. Even if it fails to be as bold as it was with Libya, I can be pleased that something was done.

In a world rife with injustice and apathy, I’ll take what I can get in terms of humanitarian gains. I’ll hope for the best, just like millions of people do everyday.

2 comments on “A Turning Point in Libya – and the UN?

  1. This was very fair and objective. I hope this turns out well for the people of Libya and those involved. If this ends with another black eye on the US it will only make it more difficult for us to get involved in countries we do not have interests.

    I think if it turns out well and the US has it’s ego stroked maybe we could see us in other areas of Africa. The key is for us to not do too much.

    That is one thing in Libya I have been thinking about is I hope that they don’t disband the army of Libya like they did in Iraq. Learn from their recent mistakes. Try to let this work out with a hands off approach.

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