Africa, Politics

Libya: UN Security Council’s game changer

By J Brooks Spector 18 March 2011

On Thursday, in the face of Gaddafi’s growing success, the UN Security Council finally decided to authorise a range of “necessary measures” against his military. But the real question is whether it’s a day late and a dollar short, leaving Gaddafi the champion of a desert called peace - to paraphrase Tacitus in North Africa some 2,200 years ago. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

In a 10:0 in-favour (including the US, France, UK and South Africa), with Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India abstaining, the UN Security Council authorised a “no-fly zone” over Libya, plus air strikes against tanks and artillery in an international intervention aimed at preventing a total rout of rebel forces by Gaddafi’s military. The resolution, sponsored by Lebanon and backed by France, Britain and the US, cited the need to protect civilians in Benghazi and an immediate cease-fire, but excluded the establishment of an external occupation force. The resolution also places an asset-freeze on Libyan entities, including the Libyan Central Bank and the Libyan National Oil Corporation.

The UN debate took place even as Libyan troops came within 160km of the rebel-held second largest city of Benghazi, after having pushed the relatively lightly armed, untrained rebels out of nearly all their positions to the west. Benghazi had been the starting point for a rebellion against the Gaddafi regime that had begun in the wake of and had been inspired by earlier citizen uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. After hearing of the UN vote, rebel spokeswoman Iman Bugaighis, told western media in Benghazi, “We are embracing each other. The people are euphoric. Although a bit late, the international society did not let us down.” The jury is definitely still out on that one, despite the brave words.

Putting the best possible face on the UN decision, diplomatic sources were telling reporters the resolution was cast in the kinds of broad strokes that allowed for airborne strikes against air-defence systems as well as missile attacks from ships. Moreover, this kind of military activity might even begin within a matter of hours.

The vote in favour of internationally sanctioned military action had finally been taken after calls for aid to the rebels from many corners of the Arab world as well as with an increasingly anguished debate in Washington. However, the vote did not provide specifics on crucial questions such as who is in charge of any military actions or what America’s role in it may be. More important still there is no way to tell if such military actions can actually prevent the recapture of Benghazi and the crushing of a rebellion that earlier seemed poised to drive Gaddafi from the power he has wielded for more than four decades.

Photo: A supporter of Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi chants slogans during a protest in Tripoli March 18, 2011. The United Nations authorised military action to curb Gaddafi on Thursday, hours after he threatened to storm the rebel bastion of Benghazi overnight, showing “no mercy, no pity”. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra.

As soon as the vote was taken, American President Barack Obama met advisors to weigh up various options and also spoke with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. French officials said it was prepared to launch attacks within hours, and British sources indicated it was prepared to act quickly as well. While the first strikes would target air defences, it was not yet clear if plans were also moving ahead to hit tank columns and other government ground forces headed towards Benghazi. US officials said it would probably take several days for any full operation to get underway.

Meanwhile, the “King of Africa” went on a Tripoli radio call-in show just before the UN vote to tell his listeners his troops were about to begin their assault on Benghazi. “We will come house by house, room by room. It’s over. The issue has been decided,” he said as he offered amnesty to opponents who ceased fighting. But to the others he promised, “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”

And on Friday morning, the country’s deputy foreign minister, Khalid Kaim, insisted the Gaddafi government was pleased by the resolution’s call for the protection of civilians, but warned that if outsiders tried to arm the rebels, “That means they are inviting Libyans to kill each other”. Kaim said his government was ready for a cease-fire, but “we need to talk to someone to agree on the technicalities of the decision”.

Meanwhile, military experts said stopping Gaddafi’s forces now was much harder than it would have been a week earlier. James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank, said, “The issue is not going to be settled in the skies above Benghazi, but by taking out tanks, artillery positions and multiple-launch rocket systems on the ground.” Ugh, one of those nasty ground wars secretary of defence Robert Gates has been warning American politicians and the military about for several months.

Watch: Implementing the no-fly zone by Al Jazeera.

Pentagon officials are saying the US is still weighing up how the US will be involved. Support may range from AWACs radar planes to coordinate military efforts, to signal jamming aircraft to keep Libyan military units from being able to communicate with each other, to even the possibility of deploying some of the 400 Marines on board two amphibious assault ships already in the region. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has said while a no-fly zone over Libya would require targeting sites inside Libya, the use of drone aircraft and even arming rebel forces, such options would apparently not include ground troops.

The US is presumably already liaising with its counterparts in the UK and France about joint military efforts, but diplomatic sources are laying the groundwork for internationalising any operation by saying the three western nations were insistent Arab League forces must be part of the military actions and, perhaps also crucially, must help pay for the operations. Western nations were eager to paint any efforts as something well beyond a Nato operation to avoid the unpalatable image of the West once more attacking an Islamic nation.

The US, among other nations, had earlier been trying to avoid getting caught up in another conflict in a Muslim nation, but Obama’s administration had eventually been made even more uncomfortable by the growing evidence of Gaddafi’s forces regaining momentum and territory, and the possibility they would eventually crush the populist rebellion. 

Precisely how far or how deeply the US will end up committing to enforcing the no-fly zone or more still seems up in the air. At a Senate hearing on Thursday, undersecretary of state William Burns heard significantly different views about how best to deal with Libya that were not lined up along party lines. 

For example, Democratic senator John  Kerry criticised Obama’s administration, saying it had been too cautious in its response. “Time is running out for the Libyan people,” he said. While Republican senator John McCain and independent senator Joe Lieberman were also encouraging stern action, Republican senator Richard Lugar, for example, joined some Democrats to warn about the risks of American involvement, arguing that the president should seek “congressional debate on a declaration of war against Libya before US forces participate in any action.” Somebody’s been thinking about Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam again.

And so, on Thursday, Clinton, while on a working visit in Tunis, argued, “There is no good choice here. If you don’t get him out and if you don’t support the opposition and he stays in power, there’s no telling what he will do.” But then Clinton added Gaddafi would do “terrible things” to Libya and its neighbours. “It’s just in his nature. There are some creatures that are like that.” All of a sudden, Clinton seems to have channelled Ronald Reagan’s famous characterisation of a generation earlier of Gaddafi as the “mad dog of the Middle East”.

Photo: A rebel fighter fires his anti-aircraft gun as they flee from Ajdabiyah, on the road to Benghazi, March 15, 2011. Muammar Gaddafi’s forces seized the strategic town in eastern Libya on Tuesday, opening the way to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi while world powers failed to agree to push for a no-fly zone. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic.

Crucially, however, this UN vote is something of a litmus test for the ability of the Security Council to enforce collective action to prevent military atrocities against civilians. The ghost of earlier conflicts, and a less-than-distinguished UN role in them, in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur seems to have haunted the discussion, giving the debate on Thursday an unusual sense of moral urgency.

Of course, these vaunted no-fly zones don’t always do the trick by themselves, as the Srebrenica massacre back in the 1990s Bosnian conflict can attest to. And, in fact, enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya may not even tamp down Gaddafi’s broad influence throughout Africa, based on decades of using Libya’s oil wealth to aggressively pursue his pan-Africanist vision. Libya pays nearly 15% of all contributions from the 53 AU member states and Libya also pays the dues of a clutch of the poorer member nations.

Even as the UN was asking for African support for the no-fly zone, the continental body seemed to look past current circumstances. As veteran AU watcher Delphine Lecoutre of the French Centre for African Studies, based at Addis Ababa University, says, even leaders who find Gaddafi’s behaviour repugnant can argue, “Libya is a very special state. This is one of the fears. If Libya is sanctioned for what’s going in the country currently, it could lead the country to withdraw from the AU. And, of course, in that case it could have implications because Libya is one of the big five contributors to the organisation.” Gosh, those awkward moral conundrums are everywhere.

In the next week, therefore, it seems we’re going to find out if the UN has the stomach to enforce real action against Gaddafi’s military, whether the Libyan rebels are prepared to commit everything to a fight against Gaddafi and whether the US can successfully juggle its ambivalence about another military action in a Muslim state along with an embrace of the uncertainties of a new social order in the Maghreb and Middle East – in place of all those old certainties about autocratic rule. Moreover, how the US copes with Libya may also shine some light on American intentions towards the sclerotic regimes along the Persian Gulf as well.

And finally, the outcome in Libya may help clarify whether moral outrage will trump cold cash in the hearts of other African leaders in supporting a genuine civic uprising by another oppressed population in yet another African nation.DM

UPDATE, Friday 16:00 CAT: News reports say the Libyan government has declared a cease fire. The Financial Times and other sources are reporting that Libya has declared a ceasefire following the UN decision – and, of course, preparations to enforce the UN decision by the French, the UK, the US and others. The FT wrote:

“Libya announced an ‘immediate ceasefire’ in its offensive against rebels on Friday, declaring it respected the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an end to fighting.

Moussa Koussa, foreign minister, said government troops were ‘stopping all military operations’ against oppostion forces. In recent days, pro-regime soldiers had pushed the rebels back to within about 100km of their base, the eastern city of Benghazi and Muammer Gaddafi, Libyan leader, had promised to crush the uprising.” DM

For more, read:

  • U.N. Approves Airstrikes to Halt Attacks by Qaddafi Forces in The New York Times;
  • Gadhafi Maintains Africa Policy Influence, Even With Rule in Doubt in the VOA;
  • U.N. authorizes  “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya in the Washington Post;
  • Security Council votes for no-fly zone in the Financial Times;
  • Specter of Rebel Rout Helps Shift U.S. Policy on Libya in the New York Times;
  • Old Arab Ties May Harm New Ones in the New York Times.

Main photo: Security Council members vote in abstention on a Libyan resolution during a Security Council Meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York March 17, 2011. China, Brazil, Russia, India and Germany abstained from the vote. The United Nations authorised military action to curb Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday, hours after he threatened to storm the rebel bastion of Benghazi overnight, showing “no mercy, no pity”. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi.


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