Advancing a Free Society

Lessons from Libya

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I was at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Washington office the other day to offer my take on the lessons of our Libya involvement. The roundtable was conducted according to the Chatham House Rule, named after the great UK talking shop, which specifies that while participants are free to make use of and pass on what they hear, they cannot identify speakers. So I can’t tell you who else was there. And I can only tell you what I said.

I offered four lessons from Libya – all of them predicated on the assumption that Muamar Qaddafi goes, whether by lucky drone strike, internal coup or assassination, or flight into exile. If a year from now he is still in control of a substantial part of Libya, we’d have an entirely different set of lessons to be learning.

Lesson 1. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the intervention against Qaddafi’s forces cites as its main justification the principle of the “responsibility to protect” civilians. This is a relatively new “emerging norm” for intervention, first adopted in the 2005 UN World Summit Outcome Document (paragraphs 138-139). According to R2P (as it is known colloquially), a state has the responsibility to protect those living on its territory from atrocity crimes. If it cannot or will not take action to protect its populations – or, as in Qaddafi’s case, if the state itself is complicit in targeting civilians – then the “international community” has the right to step in to take protective action. The idea is that states cannot hide behind their sovereign right to noninterference in their internal affairs in order to perpetrate massacres, engage in ethnic cleansing, or (out of weakness or indifference) allow substate actors to do so.

With Libya, R2P has shown that it is indeed a principle around which the Security Council can rally. It’s actionable. Skepticism about the real-world utility of R2P has abounded from its earliest days. Many countries remain suspicious of the principle, seeing it as little more than a gussied-up version of Great Power “right of intervention” against weaker states. In this case, it worked reasonably effectively as the organizing principle for Security Council action against Qaddafi (although as I noted here, there was a price to pay in terms of clarity of purpose about what we’re up to in Libya). The successful application of R2P was good not only for the Libyan opposition, but also for future potential victims of atrocity crimes.

Lesson 2: Security Council Resolution 1970 referred the situation in Libya to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for investigation. It’s the second time the Security Council has referred a case to the ICC. The first was Darfur, resulting in a warrant for Omar al-Bashir, the sitting Sudanese leader, on charges of genocide. The Bush administration, which had a complicated history with the ICC, allowed the Darfur referral to go through by abstaining at the Security Council. This time, the Obama administration actively supported referral to the ICC, which has now issued warrants for Qaddafi, his son Saif, and the head of his secret police.

When the Bush team allowed the Darfur referral through, officials hastened to point out that there was no intention to set a precedent. Of course Darfur set a precedent – one that has been followed in the case of Qaddafi’s crimes against his people. The International Criminal Court is here to stay. The Security Council won’t be creating any new “special tribunals”; it will go to the ICC to provide a legal framework for holding perpetrators accountable. The United States has come a long way toward accepting the legitimacy and utility of the Court, even though the U.S. is unlikely to become a member anytime soon.

Lesson 3. The main countries involved in the Libya operations are the UK, France, and the United States – and more broadly, NATO. As a practical matter, then, when you really want to get something done, like preventing the Libyan opposition from getting wiped out and pressuring Qaddafi to be gone, it tends to be the good old transatlantic partnership that does it. Just as the latest round of NATO obituaries were being written over the frustration in Afghanistan, like a zombie the alliance dug itself back up again to take on the Libya task.

This administration took office with many of its senior officials promising a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy in the direction of the rising powers of Asia. I really don’t know what they meant by that or what it would look like. But when you want to do something internationally, you usually want to do it with others. And as a practical matter, you cooperate best internationally with those countries that share your values. The Obama administration may have had other foreign policy priorities, but as I noted a while back, it was eventually going to figure out who the United States’ friends are.

Lesson 4. This administration got to the right answer on Libya via the United Nations. I think the Bush 43 administration would have reached the same conclusion, namely, that we need to support the Libyan opposition and get Qaddafi out of power, but would have found its way to that conclusion differently. The point is that you try to operate in your comfort zone. With the Obama administration, that would be the UN framework and international law. With Bush, the priority was decisive American leadership. But it’s interesting that the resulting conclusions are quite similar.

That’s an indication, I think, that Republicans and Democrats alike are dealing with the same world out there, and come from the same place – its most powerful country, and one that places a high value on human rights and on opposition to abusers thereof.