Seizing the Multilateral Moment in Libya

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Libya presenting the world with a multilateral moment and how the UN Security Council had taken a positive step in meeting that moment by adopting resolution 1970. At that point, calls for military action against the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi were only beginning and had gathered little support.

Now, the Security Council has adopted resolution 1973, which is extraordinary in its scope for military force and is one of the toughest resolutions adopted by the council in recent years. The resolution calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and provides a mandate for strikes on Libyan government forces on the ground to protect civilians. It is impressive that the resolution goes much further than the initial idea of a no-fly zone, which in the current situation might have been ineffective, and allows for attacks on Libyan military assets under a wider range of circumstances. It also strengthens the arms embargo and expands the asset freeze to include more individuals and Libyan state entities.

Taken together, resolutions 1970 and 1973 show that the multilateral system can respond to difficult challenges that cannot be addressed through unilateral means. These resolutions open a new chapter in the Security Council’s enforcement of the developing international norm of the responsibility of states to protect their civilians from violence.

Resolution 1973 is the direct result of an earlier expression of support for a no-fly zone by the League of Arab States. The endorsement by the league eased the reluctance of a number of states by assuring that there would be Arab support for military action in Libya, paving the way for the Security Council to act. This was a fundamental condition of U.S. support for the resolution and participation in the operation.

Though resolution 1973 is particularly broad, and was adopted with great rapidity by the Security Council, it only garnered the support of 10 of the council’s 15 members. Brazil, China, India, Germany, and Russia abstained from voting, expressing their displeasure or disquiet with the application of military force. By contrast, resolution 1970—which imposed an arms embargo on Libya, froze the assets of the Qaddafi family and their close associates, and referred potential crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court for investigation—was adopted unanimously. The divided Security Council might make future action on Libya difficult if, for example, the coalition needs a wider or more extensive mandate, such as allowing for ground troops to be introduced.

There are two other potential weaknesses for multilateral coalition military activity. The first is that the coalition is based on the fragile foundation of an illusory consensus that has not been adequately discussed by governments with their parliaments and publics. A second potential problem is that the no-fly zone is based on a desire that “something” be done to stop the Qaddafi regime’s re-conquest of Libya and targeting of civilians. This step seems to have occurred without adequate agreement among the relevant actors on the “whys, hows, and what ifs” of the action.

Regarding the first point, the illusory nature of the consensus on military action in Libya was demonstrated less than 24 hours into the campaign when Amr Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab States, in an amazing show of fecklessness, criticized the air campaign as not being what was agreed to. He alleged that the coalition strikes were hitting civilians, allegations that had also been advanced by the Qaddafi regime. Though the league later firmly restated its support for the mission, Moussa’s statement has caused damage. If Moussa and the league waver again, the mission could become another U.S.-European military adventure in the Arab world rather than a broad-based action with regional support. The potential fracturing of the coalition occurred sooner than anyone could have expected.

Domestic politics will play an important role for the coalition members. Will their publics, which have not been consulted on this matter, have the patience for the mission to continue in these times of straitened economic circumstances? The mission is being carried out without an agreed or clear end goal. The militaries of coalition members do not cite regime change as the objective. The Security Council resolution does not provide a mandate for that. However, it is clear that much of the coalition’s leadership sees the removal of Qaddafi as essential to restoring peace and order in Libya. This broad lack of agreement within the coalition could lead to its fracturing at an inopportune moment if the situation becomes more difficult.

This raises the second question of the “whys, hows, and what ifs.” Different members of the coalition cite differing reasons for joining and differing end goals. This is to be expected. The hope is that these differences are not fundamental. But, unfortunately, the members are all over the map regarding the “why.” The removal of Qaddafi from power appears to be the stated end goal of leading coalition members, but this is not mandated in resolution 1973. Thus, the situation raises the following questions. How would air power lead to the removal of the regime? Can the rebels organize themselves to bring about that end? Will the coalition members have the patience for that? Will the members of the Security Council that abstained try to bring the matter back to the council to declare that the objective of resolution 1973 has been met if civilians are no longer under threat? What if the mission is continuing a year from now?

I was and remain concerned that, after imposing the no-fly zone and neutralizing the Qaddafi forces, it would be up to the rebels to establish control of Libyan territory and force the regime from power. This puts the ultimate success of the mission in the hands of the rebels. They are a disparate, not well-organized group that has shown little military capability. In addition, they are not well known to the members of the coalition, which makes their possible assumption of power an uncertain proposition. If the war settles into a long stalemate with the rebels controlling much of the east of Libya and Qaddafi controlling the west, the coalition could be put under serious stress.

I do not agree with the criticism that action on Libya is hypocritical when violent actions against protestors are being carried out in other countries in the Middle East. Multilateral politics, like domestic politics, is the “art of the possible.” The ability to reach a consensus on action in Libya, in the face of potential crimes against humanity, is not illegitimate simply because a similar consensus cannot be reached in other circumstances.

I am concerned that the understandable rush to action has led to a “do something” impulse that is not fully thought through. This should not detract from the Security Council’s admirable attempt to protect the people of Libya from their violent authoritarian and desperate regime.

Mark Quarterman is senior adviser and director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation (C3) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Mark Quarterman