Obama’s Libyan Folly

Richard Falk Apr 6, 2011

The outcome in Libya remains uncertain, but what seems clear beyond reasonable doubt is that military intervention has not saved the day for either the shadowy opposition known as ‘the rebels’, and certainly not for the people of the country.

It has seemingly plunged Libya into a protracted violent conflict with the domestic balance of forces tipping decisively in favour of the Gaddafi regime despite a major military onslaught managed by the American-led coalition, which in recent days has been supposedly outsourced to NATO.

But since when is NATO not an American dominated alliance? The best that can be hoped for at this stage is a face-saving ceasefire that commits the Libyan leadership to a power-sharing scheme, but leaves the governing process more or less as it is, possibly replacing Gaddafi with his son who offers the West the trappings of liberal modernity.

Rebels, Lines and Sand

President Barack Obama has chosen Libya as the place to draw a line in the sand, although it is a rather wavering and fuzzy line.

It was finally drawn in response to what was being called two weeks ago an imminent atrocity about to be inflicted upon the people of Benghazi, although the evidence of this prospect of dire bloodletting was never present much beyond the bombast of the dictator.

Obama stopped what the more ardent interventionist in his camp were derisively calling his “dithering”. Heeding these criticisms, Obama on March 28 came out clearly in support of military action, although carefully circumscribed in scope and nature by reference to its supposedly narrow humanitarian undertaking of protecting Libyan civilians.

The futility of preventing a Gaddafi victory on the ground by establishing a no-fly zone, even as inappropriately expanded to become a ‘no-drive’ zone, should have been obvious to anyone conversant with the course of numerous political struggles of recent times being waged for the political control of a sovereign state.

What the world actually witnessed was mainly something other than an effort to protect Libyan civilians. It was rather a an unauthorised attempt to turn the tide of the conflict in favour of the insurrectionary campaign by destroying as many of the military assets possessed by Libya’s armed forces as possible.

The campaign and character of the opposition has never been clearly established. It is still best described as a motley gathering of opposition forces vaguely referred to as ‘the rebels.’

In contrast to the seeming failure of its military challenge, the public relations campaign of the rebels worked brilliantly.

Most of all it mobilised the humanitarian hawks inhabiting the Obama presidential bird nest, most prominently Samantha Power, who has long called upon the United States government to use its might wherever severe human rights abuses occur. And the media the celebrants of this intervention have been led by the NY Times stalwart, Nicholas Kristof.

The PR full court press also misleadingly convinced world public opinion and Western political leaders that the Gaddafi regime was opposed and hated by the entire population of Libya, making him extremely vulnerable to intervention, which encouraged the belief that the only alternative to military intervention was for the world to sit back and bear witness to genocide against the Libyan people taking place on a massive scale.

This entire portrayal of the conflict and the choices available to the UN and the global community was false in all its particulars.

No Cakewalk

Even without the spurious wisdom of hindsight, the international undertaking could be criticised as having been designed to fail: a questionable intervention in what appeared increasingly to be an armed insurrection against the established government, yet falling far short of what would be needed to secure the outcome proclaimed as just and necessary – the fall of the Gaddafi government.

How can such a struggle, involving a challenge to the dynamics of self-determination, be won by relying on the bombs and missiles of colonial powers, undertaken without even the willingness to follow the attack with a willingness to engage in peacekeeping on the ground?

Had this willingness been present it would have at least connected the dots between the interventionary means adopted and the political mission being proclaimed.

Even with this more credible posture, the odds of success would still remain small. If we consider the record of the past sixty years, very few interventions by colonial or hegemonic actors were successful despite enjoying overwhelming military superiority.

The only ‘success’ stories of interventionary politics involve very minor countries such as Grenada and Panama, while the failures were in the big and prolonged struggles that took place in Indochina, Algeria, Indonesia.

In Libya, the prospects were further worsened by the incoherence, inexperience, and lack of discipline exhibited by rebel forces.

This effort of a weak and unorganised opposition to induce foreign forces to secure an otherwise unattainable victory is reminiscent of the bill of goods that wily Iraqi exiles sold to neoconservative operatives such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz during the lead up to the Iraq War (2003).

Remember the promises of flowers greeting the American troops arriving in Baghdad or regime change as ‘a cakewalk’ to be achieved without notable casualties or costs.

As in Libya the case for intervention rested on the false assumption that the foreign occupiers would be welcomed as liberators and that the Saddam Hussein regime lacked any popular base of support.

The Scourge of War

Such a negative assessment of the Libyan intervention seems clear enough. This assessment was offered at the outset of the crisis by the most qualified high official in the Obama inner circle, Robert Gates, the secretary of defence.

Why did Obama not heed this sensible advice? Every Democratic president, and none more than Obama, struggle to maintain their image as willing to use force in the pursuit of national interests whenever the occasion arises.

And here, the risks of inaction must have seemed too great to bear. Instead, Obama attempted to have it both ways: lead the diplomatic effort to obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council, and then provide most of the military muscle for the initial phase of the operation, and after that withdraw to the background while NATO takes over.

This middle path is littered with contradictions: to convince the Security Council, and avoid a Russian or Chinese veto, it was necessary to portray the mission in the most narrow humanitarian terms as being only for the protection of civilians, while to protect the rebels (who are not ‘civilians’ as legally understood) required a much more ambitious scale of attack than is implied by establishing a no-fly zone; beyond this, if the unconditional goal was the elimination of the Gaddafi regime, then the intervention would have to go far beyond the boundary set by the Security Council decision.

It would have to tip the balance in the conflict. As has become clear, the approved military objectives have been dramatically exceeded in the flawed effort to protect the rebels and help them win, but seemingly to no avail.

Such disregard of the limits of the UN Security Council authorisation, awkwardly reinforced by the failure of the Security Council to play any subsequent supervisory role to ensure that its approval of force did not go beyond what had been agreed, has once again weakened the UN as a body operating within the constitutional framework of the UN Charter.

It makes the UN in the peace and security area appear to be more an agent of geopolitical forces in the West than an objective body seeking to implement the rule of law in relation to the strong and weak alike.

We all should remember that when the UN was established in the aftermath of World War II, it was assigned the primary responsibility of minimising the role of war in human affairs.

The inspirational opening words of the Preamble to the UN Charter should be recalled and solemnly reaffirmed: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

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