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Libya, R2P, and Precedent

[ 23 ] October 25, 2011 |

Scott Horton has an interesting essay at Foreign Policy discussing the domestic and international impact of the intervention in Libya. The domestic side is mostly right; the international side, not so much:

While much of the military operations in Libya were plainly within the mandate of Resolution 1973, some aspects exceeded it. For instance, attacks fairly early in the conflict targeted command-and-control centers of the Qaddafi regime. Such steps would be routine in wartime and would plainly be authorized under the laws of armed conflict. But it’s not so clear that they were authorized by Resolution 1973, the authority of which rested on the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P): the notion, adopted by the U.N. in 2005, that intervention is justified to protect a civilian population from harm, even at the hands of its own leaders. After all, strikes were mounted against military positions far away from the attacks on civilians and with no apparent linkage to them. Moreover, as the war progressed, the posture of the fading Qaddafi regime became increasingly defensive. The final weeks of the campaign put this in sharpest perspective, as Qaddafi and his final core group of retainers withdrew to his hometown of Sirte, ultimately fleeing in a convoy that was fired upon by NATO aircraft and an American Predator drone, destroying two vehicles. Libyan authorities have denied an independent autopsy that might show conclusively the cause of Qaddafi’s death — which may have been shots fired after he surrendered and was in rebel custody — but the role played by NATO in his final moments points to the near perfect inversion of the mission. Instead of protecting civilians from attack by Qaddafi and his forces, they were attacking a fleeing and clearly finished Qaddafi.

At this point, some members of the Security Council clearly feel they got suckered. They voted for a resolution to protect the people of Benghazi from slaughter and saw their authority invoked to depose Qaddafi and install a new government. That will have consequences for future humanitarian crises. Russia and China have now blocked Security Council resolutions targeting Syria. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has made clear that Russia supports demands for reform in Syria and abhors the use of violence against demonstrators, but has been equally clear that Russia cannot risk a repeat of the Libyan example.

NATO’s operations in Libya began as a valid demonstration of the use of military force to protect civilians. But they evolved quickly into an exercise in regime change. In the wake of Libya, the Security Council is unlikely to embrace another R2P operation anytime soon. And that is bad news for the people of Damascus and Hama, as well as for advocates of the responsibility to protect.

No.

Anyone who believed that the intervention in Libya wouldn’t involve at least an attempt to overthrow Gadhafi is either stupid or lying. With the Russians, the Chinese, and the Arab League it’s pretty obviously the latter; none of them gave a fig for Gaddafi, but they were happy to express their shock and indignation when the campaign went beyond a no fly zone. It was obvious from day one that the initiation of military operations would inevitably produce an effort to overthrow Gaddafi, although it was less certain for some time whether that effort would succeed. There was never the faintest chance that the Russians were going to allow a UNSC mandated no fly zone over Syria, a country where they have real interests, and it’s rather sad that Horton (as well as a few opportunistic neocons) believes otherwise. No criticism of the Russians intended; countries tend to defend their interests. Moreover, I’d say that there’s pretty much zero chance that the US, France, or the United Kingdom were ever going to ask for an NFZ over Syria, no matter what happened in Libya; fighting the Syrian Army and Air Force would be a much more expensive and difficult operation that defeating Gaddafi’s rabble, with the political effects much less predictable.

Moreover, what Horton seems to be asking for here is the worst of all worlds; a situation in which NATO became the militarily necessary guarantor of a Libya split between Loyalist and Rebel factions, observing a resolute neutrality regarding who was supposed to win. This interpretation of R2P would lead inevitably to the carving out of multiple statelets with minimal internal legitimacy and no ability to defend themselves. It is very difficult for me to understand how anyone would find this to be a desirable, much less an outcome that would provide a useful precedent for future action.

Comments (23)

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  1. At this point, some members of the Security Council clearly feel they got suckered. They voted for a resolution to protect the people of Benghazi from slaughter and saw their authority invoked to depose Qaddafi and install a new government. That will have consequences for future humanitarian crises. Russia and China have now blocked Security Council resolutions targeting Syria. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has made clear that Russia supports demands for reform in Syria and abhors the use of violence against demonstrators, but has been equally clear that Russia cannot risk a repeat of the Libyan example.

    This is just a terrible, awful argument.

    It’s like Mr. Horton never heard anything about Russian or Chinese behavior at the UN prior to March 2011.

  2. The Heretik says:

    No.

    Anyone who believed that the intervention in Libya wouldn’t involve at least an attempt to overthrow Gadhafi is either stupid or lying.

    Okay. Then why not be honest about these “non hostilities” from the start and state what the desired end is, the end of Ghadafi?

    • Holden Pattern says:

      Because you have to have a good “humanitarian” justification and an implied concomitant limitation for the liberal interventionists to use as a cudgel against the pacifists, the suspicious and the cynical.

      Then, after everything is over, in the cold light of day, those same liberal interventionists get to earn their savvy creds by explaining how anyone who took the humanitarian justification (and the concomitant limitations on action) seriously as the real reason and real limit on action was a fool.

      Repeat ad infinitum. The formula hasn’t changed for decades.

      • Jason says:

        I’ll agree that the whole R2P is a weak facade for the excuse of interventionism, absolutely. It’s sad that we have to watch State Dept officials trot out this nonsense as justification for military actions, that it is not in fact a general philosophy of the United States government but rather a selective tool that it applies rather selectively. Yes, there’s no way that Syria is going to be the next Libya, but there are serious people talking about the “Libya model” as the Obama doctrine. It’s ridiculous.

        But all this does allow the neocons to attack Obama as having a weak foreign policy approach, as he inconsistently applies this “R2P” to whatever scenario the UNSC will allow. So there’s that, at least.

      • No one ever actually disagrees with Holden. No one ever actually holds a different opinion from him.

        Anyone who claims to is actually just being dishonest. So they can punch hippies. Which is obviously the only thing anyone who claimed to want to stop the next Rwanda, the next Sbrenca, actually cares about.

        Geopolitics is actually just a great, big arena for carrying out intra-liberal internet slap fights. Everything you see happening there is best understood as an extension of what some guy wrote in a comment thread.

    • Bruce Webb says:

      There is no contradiction.

      Ghadaffi is no longer in a position to order attacks on civilians. And there was no conceivable end-state that would achieve that outcome that still had him in charge of state security forces. You can call the subsequent activity what you want: war, police action, protection of civilian populations, but the End Game was what it was going to be. Just like Berlin 1945. Asking whether Herr Schickelgruber was a head of state, legitimate military target as operational top military commander, or criminal murderor on an unprecedented historical scale is kind of purposeless, if a Lancaster Bomber or a B-17 had managed to deliver the right bomb at the right time to the right bunker nobody would have given a shit about due process.

      Why not argue about the legal niceties of the ambush that took out Bonnie and Clyde? In that case I suspect there was some sort of warrant yet the end result was always going to be identical to a case of extra-judicial execution. In the case of Col G the solution to “ordering the killing of civilians” was never going to be “20 years to life ‘ in a prison in the Netherlands. And yes I know Mubarack is on trial, the situations were never going to be coincident. No matter how you dress up the legalisms.

    • Who was saying the desired end wasn’t the end of Gaddaffi?

      Barack Obama, for instance, called on him to step down a month before the UN resolution, and reiterated that point throughout the operation.

      • scott says:

        The point is that the administration publicly denied that the point of military operations was to depose Gaddhafi when it pretty clearly was the point. This post concedes the point but adopts the rhetorical strategy of saying that anyone who says they believed the administration’s initial narrow R2P justifications was either a fool or a liar. Horton’s point is that pretty bold-faced lying has political consequences, whether you were actually gulled or just pretended to be. Either way, nation states who fall into these categories probably aren’t going to like looking like chumps and will be less willing to play ball. This isn’t a hard point to understand; you can argue whether it’s a possible cost worth shouldering or not, but it is a cost.

        • The point is that the administration publicly denied that the point of military operations was to depose Gaddhafi when it pretty clearly was the point.

          I don’t think it was. I don’t think the air power operations were designed towards that end.

          It was certainly a universally-understood likely outcome of protecting a rebel group and shooting at the loyalist military, likely to help the rebels in their campaign, but the way the actual operations were carried out – such as the use of drones in Misrata to stop the rocketing, or the lack of coordination between ground and air forces – are not what we’d expect to see if the air power was sent in for the purpose or regime change.

      • DocAmazing says:

        In other words, you wanted the guy hit.

  3. [...] SHOULD WE HAVE EXPECTED ANYTHING DIFFERENT? Robert Farley suggests no. “Anyone who believed that the intervention in Libya wouldn’t involve at least an attempt to overthr…” [...]

  4. Curmudgeon says:

    The only fair reasons the Russians and Chinese would have for feeling snookered would be if they expected UN protection of Benghazi to be akin to the UN protection of Srebrenitsa–i.e. all assistance short of help.

    It’s rather clear from history that interventions into credible ‘R2P’ situations end in either inaction and abject failure (see: the UN in Bosnia and in Rwanda) or with one faction being destroyed. Since Cyprus, half-measures have seldom been attempted. Once it became known that NATO was intending to bomb Libya, the only likely outcome involved a concerted effort to kill Qaddafi by any means short of nuclear weapons or full scale invasion.

    If the Russians and Chinese did not see this, then it does not speak well of their respective foreign policy establishments in any way whatsoever.

    • But there wasn’t a concerted effort to kill Gadaffi, at least not by the UN force. This was never a decapitation mission. The drones plinking rocket crews in Misrata, the fighter-bombers striking vehicles in the deserts, the cruise missiles taking out air defense installations, even the strikes on command centers, well all operations designed to render the loyalist military incapable of doing its nasty business.

      Now, the Free Libya Forces – they clearly had a bead on Gadaffi from the beginning. But, then, the Free Libya Forces spent the war complaining about how the NATO forces weren’t coordinating with them in their operations, and were off doing their own thing.

  5. Bruce Webb says:

    What kind of moron doesn’t understand the connection between “command and control” however distant in physical space and the concepts of “command” and “control” at the point of the spear? It’s the fucking point! Spelled out in the term!

    If the Viet Cong by some miracle have gotten a bomb planted under Kissengers desk it would have disrupted at least temporarily bombing over Hanoi and Haiphong. The idea that targeting Ghadaffi’s command and control facilities in Tripoli had nothing to do with proposed operations against Benghazi is too dumb for words. It is not like we are talking 1815 and dispatching orders by carrier pigeon, did anyone inform this guy of the newfangled technology called “radio”?

  6. It was obvious from day one that the initiation of military operations would inevitably produce an effort to overthrow Gaddafi, although it was less certain for some time whether that effort would succeed.

    The attempt to overthrow Gadaffi predated the UN resolution and the protective mission by months. The attempt to overthrow Gadaffi was conducted by the Free Libya Forces.

    It’s certainly true that the UN’s efforts to render the loyalist military incapable of conducting operations had a salutary effect upon the rebels’ cause; that does not translate into a conclusion that the UN military operations themselves were aimed at removing Gadaffi. Making sure that the Libyans themselves were in charge of what happened to the regime was a core element of at least American foreign policy.

  7. Njorl says:

    By the time Qaddafi’s convoy was bombed, was any UN resolution necessary? Was Qaddafi still considered the government? If there was another government in Libya which wanted military aid against an ex-dictator trying to regain power, would a UN resolution be necessary?

  8. wengler says:

    I think I argued at the time that it was simply an operation designed to take out Gaddafi but got shot down here for ‘not thinking of the children’.

    These R2P arguments wouldn’t have passed the shit detector 30-40 years ago, but I’ve noticed people have either gotten dumber about this or they are just up for some warring. Either way I think Libya is going to teach people the wrong lessons about how easy these types of operations are.

    Though I have to concede western journalists hate covering the type of dirty wars I’m talking about. Not enough seaside views.

    • You think a lot of things.

      For instance, you thought it was absurd to the point of mockery for me to write in early September that the situation was not, in fact, and entrenched stalemate.

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