Libya Clock Running Out


At the behest of Lebanon, the UN Security Council held a closed door session yesterday to discuss what measures, if any, to take against Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi. France was the strongest advocate and Russia the most skeptical of the all-important Permanent Members.

President Obama continues his public caution, saying his administration "will be continuing to coordinate closely both through NATO as well as the United Nations and other international forums to look at every single option that’s available to us in bringing about a better outcome for the Libyan people."

BBC’s Mark Mardell believes "the dynamic is changing" because "Gaddafi is apparently poised to win, or at least win enough territory to split his country. Despite the Obama administration’s extreme reluctance about a no-fly zone, one of their conditions has been met. The Arab League is behind the call. The French and the British are gung-ho for patrolling the skies and are drafting a UN resolution. Even US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rowed back a little bit from his initially dismissive remarks."

But it’s worth remembering that, for all their enthusiasm, the UK and France bring to the table but a single aircraft carrier. Unless they can persuade others to act, their decision not to invest in their own defense leaves them powerless to do so for themselves.

.Obama is clearly reticent and a Russia veto would give him strong legal cover. And it’s not just Russia. Turkey has been strongly opposed. The G8, meeting today, warned of "dire consequences" for Gaddafi but pointedly avoided any mention of a no-fly zone.

Indeed, French foreign minister Alain Juppé conceded today that "the moment has passed" for NATO.  "If we had used military force last week to neutralise a number of air strips and a few dozen of their planes, perhaps the opposition’s reversal of fortune wouldn’t have happened."

That’s likely right. And the fact of the matter is that the pro-intervention advocates simply have not made their case that a no-fly zone would achieve fruitful aims. The inertia was with those like former SACEUR Wesley Clark, who argued that America had no vital interests at stake in the Libyan civil war and therefore failed the test of complying with the Weinberger Doctrine.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently stepped down as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department to return to the Princeton faculty, tried valiantly to turn the tide in a Sunday New York Times op-ed. But, ultimately, the arguments amounted to a huge bet that everything would go right and that the pay-off would be massive: "a new beginning of accountable governments that can provide services and opportunities for their citizens in ways that could dramatically decrease support for terrorist groups and violent extremism." Those are some long odds, indeed.

Additionally, it overstates the degree to which Western–Read: United States–action can impact authoritarian decisionmakers. Daniel Larison of The American Conservative:

Obviously, governments everywhere understand that force can be used effectively to quash protests. The Tunisian government’s security forces tried and failed, because the protesters did not disperse and the military refused to assist in the crackdown. The Egyptian regime used its police in the same way, but once again the military did not want to be directly implicated in violence against protesters. Early on, Gaddafi invoked Tiananmen Square as a model, and this will always be a model for authoritarian governments in the future. Whether Gaddafi wins or loses, the Tiananmen model will always be there for other governments to imitate. Jumping into a Libyan war for the sake of deterring other authoritarian governments won’t work, because the U.S. isn’t going to commit itself to a global policy of taking military action in support of rebel movements everywhere.

Further, as CAP’s Steve Clemons notes that intervention would take "the cameras off the brave protesters and puts them on US and NATO ships and airbases. A no-fly zone changes the frame in the region from youth movements seeking new opportunities, change, and the end to institutionalized indignity to a power play between Western military forces vs. authoritarians they have long tolerated."

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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