Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya and the UN; resolution and intervention.

Now that the UN-backed resolution is being enforced onto the Libyan government, here would be a good time to reflect on the wider meaning and implications of what is happening in Libya under UN authority.

First of all, President Obama has made the obvious and wise decision of drawing lessons from both wars in Iraq. The USA's stance in the Libyan can be summarised as this: do it multilaterally; don't commit troops.
The reasons for this position are clear: learning the things that went right with the first war against Iraq (the UN-backed, international, Arab-supported, coalition to liberate Kuwait); and remembering the mistakes of the second (still unconcluded) Iraq war (the almost unilateral decision to invade Iraq with almost no legal basis or clear threat to other nations from Iraq). On the "don't commit troops" point, this is similar to President Clinton's war in Kosovo, which was done as mainly an air war with few troops involved on the US side. And after the mental scar that the second Iraq war still has on the Arab world, Obama is clearly minded to be seen NOT as an occupier, with American soldiers occupying the third Muslim country in ten years.

But there are also some wider, historic points to think about regarding the UN resolution against Libya. And this is about the history of previous conflicts over the past twenty years, and how they tie in with the UN and the international community.
The status of the UN resolution against Libya bears some similaritiries to the first Iraq war, and also the war in Kosovo, as I have mentioned. But there are important differences.

Today we have an Arab-backed, international coalition against the Libyan government, as existed against Saddam Hussein in 1991. The coalition against Saddam Hussein was created to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces; this resulted in many months of bombing before the actual invasion of ground forces took place.
In the war in Kosovo, President Clinton failed to get a UN resolution to legally back up the war to prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Kosovars; therefore, he and NATO fought a war without UN backing. Perhaps later President Bush and Dick Cheney had this precedent at the back of their minds when they looked at the options for a second Iraq war.
What we have today in Libya is a UN-backed air war to effectively bring about a change of government in Libya; this is neither to drive out an occupying force (as in the first Iraq war), or to prevent ethnic cleansing and promote an independence movement (as in the Kosovo war).

The UN resolution against Libya is to prevent "crimes against humanity" and "war crimes" such as the shelling of civilians; this sounds quite a lot like the reasons used to intervene in Bosnia (although this was also about massive ethnic cleansing too, like in the later Kosovo war). But there is no "ethnic cleansing" in Libya. It is, more or less, an irregular and bloody civil war; a power struggle between two sides, where the "normal" rules of war are thrown to one side for political reasons. And the UN has decided to back one side over the other.

In other words, from the history of UN international interventions in the past twenty years, there is almost no adequate precedent.

On the other hand, Muammar Gaddafi has plenty to be held account for.

For a start, as a clearly unstable, mentally-unhinged psychopath, he waged a war of terror against the USA in the 1980s. The Lockerbie bombing, and the bombing of a German nightclub frequented by American soldiers, were given the go-ahead under his watch.

There is the fact that during the same period, and before, he financed and supported various other terrorist groups around the world. For twenty years, he made Libya effectively a terrorist haven; in his own delusional mind, he saw himself as a kind of "anti-Westerm messiah".

There is the fact that as ruler of Libya, he managed to transform it into an Orwellian nightware (although there have been other dictators following this mould as well).

And there is the fact that when his population did start an uprising against his government last month, he brought in mercenaries from other African countries to terrorise and murder his own people, when his own army, presumably, did not have the stomach to do it themselves. By bringing in foreign fighters to fight (by which I mean, massacre) Libyan civilians, Gaddafi effectively made it an international affair.

So although this situation is unprecented, it is not entirely surprising that the international community saw fit to respond. But, this response would have almost certainly not happened without Arab support.
And the Arab support would not have happened if those Arab governments were not themselves concerned about appearing on the "right" side, to their own respective populations.

What has been called the "Arab Spring" of 2011 is the real game changer here. The Libyan uprising would not have happened without the Egyptian revolution; the Egyptian revolution would not have happened without the Tunisian revolution; the Tunisian revolution may not have happened without one poor fruit seller setting himself on fire in sheer desperation at his government in December 2010.

So the "Arab Spring" is the real reason that the UN passed this resolution, setting the precedent of an air war to support democratic forces against autocratic governments.

Let's cheer for the Arabs, then, who have made possible a UN resolution with potentially huge implications, if ever used as a precedent at a later date.
Though I'm not holding my breath; no wonder that the Chinese and Russians have been so wary of what this resolution might mean. That the UN now officially supports democracy, and is ready to takes sides to enforce it where necessary.

Gaddafi said recently that the UN's resolution was technically invalid as it went against the rules of the UN Charter: he meant the principle of not interfering into internal conflicts.
I suppose that, technically, he may have a point. But no one outside of Tripoli cares what he thinks any more. He IS crazy, after all...

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