Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Libya, Syria and the perils of intervention and arrogance

Among the various serious problems of our mainstream press in the US is the scarcity of foreign affairs and international coverage, which means that reporters, editors and publishers are even more susceptible to spin from the government and various narrow interest groups. Stephen Walt looks at one consequence of the NATO regime change operation in Libya, which was sold to the public - and to the the UN - as a humanitarian mission to protect civilians in Will victory in Libya cause defeat in Syria? Foreign Policy 02/06/2012. Russia and China recently vetoed a proposed UN Security Council resolution addressing the repression in Syria. Walt writes:

You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.

One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation. [my emphasis]
He makes a number of qualifications, e.g., the obligatory reference to Qaddafi being a bad guy, Russia and China doing themselves and the UN Security Council some harm by vetoing the anti-Syria resolution.

But his basic point is important. The US is pursuing a global-dominance strategy, which Walt would prefer to see replaced by an "offshore balancing" strategy requiring a less massive military and considerably less military intervention.

The current strategy assumes that the United States can and should intervene to change governments where there is a perceived pressing need and the target country does not possess nuclear weapons (Iraq, Libya - and Iran?). National sovereignty in those cases is treated as a short-run annoyance to be overcome, not as an important basic element in international relations.

But for all the rest of the nations of the world that are not the sole superpower, those questions are important. And it's perfectly understandable that even more powerful nations like Russia and China are very hesitant to support a UN humanitarian resolution that they have reason to believe could be used for another NATO regime-change war.

And, as Walt's post emphasizes, it is a setback for anyone genuinely concerned about the "obligation to protect" that is now part of international law. In a better-organized world, there would be some standards by which an international operation could be authorized to stop a genocidal operation.

But in a world still so addicted to war as ours is, and with the US pursuing a policy that involves considerable disregard of sovereignty and far too much willingness to engage in acts of war and subversion against regimes we consider undesirable, it's hard to see how the "obligation to protect" can be meaningfully enforced by the UN. I don't mean to dismiss what the UN does accomplish in its peacekeeping and humanitarian missions. But what it can accomplish, even through powerful members states, in cases of civil war or massive civil disturbance is often limited to minimizing the harmful consequences, not fixing the problems that are generating them.

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