Five Observations on Libya and the U.N.
1. The U.N.’s surprising backbone. The U.N. has never moved so swiftly to take sides in a civil war. It demonstrates that the U.N.’s gradually expanding activism and broadening interpretation of its charter since 1989 continues apace. Iraq and Afghanistan did not kill liberal interventionism after all. It is reassuring that there is robust global ...
1. The U.N.’s surprising backbone. The U.N. has never moved so swiftly to take sides in a civil war. It demonstrates that the U.N.’s gradually expanding activism and broadening interpretation of its charter since 1989 continues apace. Iraq and Afghanistan did not kill liberal interventionism after all. It is reassuring that there is robust global support for holding tyrants accountable; but the problem with liberal interventionism is that it is fickle (Why Libya and not North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Cuba, or Uzbekistan?) and sometimes ineffective. Having started this, let us hope the U.N.’s ability to succeed at such operations grows in proportion with its ambitions.
2. Qaddafi: "I’m not dead yet!" Champions of liberal interventionism are indulging in a fit of triumphalism (here, here, and here), but it is greatly premature to be hanging a "Mission Accomplished" banner. Good intentions do not automatically make good policy. Proponents of the no-fly zone seem to have focused all their attention on getting it approved, as if that by itself would validate their agenda. That, however, is aiming at the wrong target. Having approved the mission, we could very well fail at implementing it, adding "Libya" to "Somalia," "Angola," and "Congo" to the collection of bywords for the U.N.’s proverbial failings. Nothing will legitimize the liberal ideals behind the intervention so well as ensuring its success, and proponents have been disturbingly vague about how exactly they plan to do that-or even what constitutes success.
3. "How does this end?" A no-fly zone is not a goal; it is a means to an end. What is the end? Ostensibly, it is to protect Libyan civilians, in which case we’ll have to keep the no-fly zone operating forever. In practice, it means we’ll have to keep the no-fly zone in place until a new government takes power in Libya that does not have a score to settle with rebellious citizens. Thus, the goal is implicitly the overthrow of the Libyan government (the first time the U.N. has voted to overthrow the government of one of its member states). But having ruled out ground forces, we are left with insufficient tools with which to accomplish our goal. We are forced to rely on the Libyan rebels, who have taken a serious beating in the last week, and hope-which is not a strategy. If Qaddafi hangs on, Libya will be effectively partitioned, isolated from the world, and splintered into failed statelets, of which those held by the rebels become an international protectorate like Kosovo, or Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s. What’s the strategy then? (See Micah Zenko’s excellent post on this topic).
4. Masterly Inactivity. Whether by clever design or a failure of leadership, the Obama administration managed to minimize U.S. involvement and maximize allied leadership, which is a good thing. The British and French are leading an international military intervention, something they haven’t presumed to try since the Suez Crisis of 1956. The United States has long been shouldering more than its far share of the burden for global security for decades. We’ve been lecturing the allies for years that they needed to step up and do more. We’ve got what we asked for; it would be naïve to assume that they will do more only of what we want. What’s odd is that this energetic multipolarity is coming from "old Europe." The new great power aspirants-India and Brazil-are on the sidelines.
5. Politics 2012. Obama just handed Republican presidential challengers a gift. I think Republicans have been wary of criticizing Obama’s foreign policy because, in truth, they are the strongest supporters of his biggest initiative: the war in Afghanistan. Now Republicans have an opportunity. They can voice caution over aspects of the intervention in Libya without looking like peaceniks or isolationists because they still support the war in Afghanistan. And they can safely continue supporting the war in Afghanistan without looking like knee-jerk boosters for every military intervention by expressing concern over the intervention in Libya.