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Lucking out in Libya

  • 26 August 2011

Colonel Gaddafi's regime is crumbling. Dramatic announcements are being made of his perishing in battle or of total victory. But this was meant to happen sooner, when NATO forces began assisting Libya's rebel forces with tactical airpower in March. Many in Libya will rejoice in the regime's fall. But it is fitting to see exactly what has and has not gone right.

The passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1973 took place ostensibly to protect civilians with an unspecified 'no-fly zone'. 'This is the international community acting under international law to prevent mass murder,' suggested Daniel Serwer in The Atlantic in March.

A closer reading of what happened shows something different — that the resolution, according to a Security Council source cited in the Guardian, was intended to 'throw a protective ring around the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi'. Sides, in other words, were taken early on in the conflict.

From the start, it was questionable whether the resolution authorised regime change, let alone the backing of one faction in the conflict. The Arab League expressed its fears that the resolution was being violated. Russia and India made similar protests at such hair-splitting by NATO forces.

The Obama administration and NATO have been lucky that this campaign has worked thus far, if imperfectly. Slaughter may have been avoided in Benghazi and other strategic rebel points. But to participate in a brutal civil war is always a dangerous game of chance.

'Your own instinct is to say: "We must do something,"' Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told the Guardian. But once committed to, such engagements can be prolonged.

They can also be confused. Disagreements between NATO members began early in the campaign. Was the regime the intended target? Or was protecting civilians the order of the day?

The haphazard outcome has encouraged some to predict that the Libyan 'solution' might reveal how the US will involve itself in humanitarian interventions on the cheap. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has insisted European powers throw in more military muscle behind such missions.

Could this be the face of humanitarian intervention after the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan? Perhaps we are set to continue what New York Times Magazine contributor David Rieff, among others, termed a 'new age of liberal imperialism'.

What should bother members of the international community is where the rebel National Transitional Council goes next. NATO members have wholeheartedly embraced the rebel collective, but continue to