Shots fired as Zenko’s Libya argument starts a Twitter war
Micah Zenko, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations criticized the NATO-led military campaign against Libya’s former leader on the grounds that it violated the U.N. Security Council’s mandate authorizing the use of force for the narrow purpose of protecting civilians. The West’s overreach, ...
Micah Zenko, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations criticized the NATO-led military campaign against Libya’s former leader on the grounds that it violated the U.N. Security Council’s mandate authorizing the use of force for the narrow purpose of protecting civilians.
The West’s overreach, he argued in an opinion piece in The National, has contributed to stalemate in the U.N. Security Council over Syria, where the Chinese and Russians cast a double veto to block a resolution which threatened to consider sanctions, but not military force, if Damascus didn’t halt a bloody crackdown that has lead to the death of nearly 3,000 civilians.
“The endorsement of the Security Council proved essential to the legitimisation of the NATO-led intervention in Libya’s civil war. However, several countries openly violated the resolutions, adopting a much more active role and presence in the conflict by arming the rebels, providing military training and placing forward air controllers on the ground to call in air support,” Micah writes. “As a result of these blatant violations, the U.N. has been unwilling to endorse intervention in Syria to stop the government-sanctioned violence against peaceful protesters. In June, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delayed a Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, stating he would not support ‘a dead ringer for Resolution 1973,’ which he believed had been ‘turned into a scrap of paper to cover up a pointless military operation.’ On October 4 Russia and China vetoed a sanctions resolution.”
It’s certainly true that NATO military support for Libya’s rebel movement, which has now become Libya’s transitional government, has figured prominently in the debate in the U.N. Security Council. China, Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa, which supported the decision to use force in Libya, have all cited NATO’s use of force to help topple the regime as a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of Resolution 1973, in defending their refusal, or at least reluctance, to impose harsh new measures against Syria. But was it decisive?
Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch took issue with Zenko’s argument on Twitter, tweeting that it’s “true that Russia, China, others upset over expanded NATO mission in Libya, but they would have vetoed Syria action anyway.” Lynch added: “I’m not saying that Libya precedent didn’t matter at all, but more as an excuse for veto than a reason.”
For his part, Zenko tweeted: “Strategic interests matters, as does precedence. If US, Russia, or China misuses UNSC it’s wrong. We should consistently say so.” He added: “And I think it’s wrong to imply that the misuse of 1970 + 1973 for regime change had no impact on double-veto.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor at Princeton University and the former director of policy planning for the State Department, tweeted that, over time, the precedent of using force to halt mass atrocities would prevail. “Libya precedent will ultimately box Russia & China in more than it will give them excuses for inaction,” she wrote.
I tend to agree that the Libya precedent was not decisive in influencing China’s and Russia’s decisions to block the Syria resolution, and more likely reflected an assessment that Assad’s regime would survive. I suspect the two countries, particularly China and Russia, would have been inclined to veto the Libya force measure, Resolution 1973, instead of abstaining, if it hadn’t had the support of the region’s key regional groups, the African Union and the Arab League.
In the case of Syria, the U.N. Security Council’s lone Arab country, Lebanon, was not prepared to challenge its powerful neighbor, providing cover for a Russian and Chinese veto. If the West can once again muster regional support for their Middle East initiatives in the Security Council, which is far from certain, they may see a more agreeable Russian and Chinese response.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
More from Foreign Policy
Russians Are Unraveling Before Our Eyes
A wave of fresh humiliations has the Kremlin struggling to control the narrative.
A BRICS Currency Could Shake the Dollar’s Dominance
De-dollarization’s moment might finally be here.
Is Netflix’s ‘The Diplomat’ Factual or Farcical?
A former U.S. ambassador, an Iran expert, a Libya expert, and a former U.K. Conservative Party advisor weigh in.
The Battle for Eurasia
China, Russia, and their autocratic friends are leading another epic clash over the world’s largest landmass.