Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
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.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
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In a remarkable statement of foreign policy myopia and domestic political pandering, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced last week that the United States should largely subordinate its Middle East policy-making to Israel. In response to a reporter's question about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Romney said (my emphasis):
The actions that I will take will be actions recommended and supported by Israeli leaders. I don't seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel's leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that's something I'll be inclined to do. But again, that's a decision which I would look to the Israeli leadership to help guide. I don't think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process, instead we should stand by our ally. Again, my inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist.
This statement is especially remarkable in light of Romney's earlier statements emphasizing the importance of U.S. leadership in world affairs. In his speech at The Citadel in early October, he said:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
Yet when it comes to the Middle East, Romney seems to think the United States should not exercise leadership, but instead do pretty much whatever Israel's leaders want.
As I've noted repeatedly, politicians who say things like this are actually false friends of Israel, because they are helping keep that country on its present self-destructive course.
Of course, the idea that you would simply do whatever one's allies wanted is at odds with the basic notion that a president's primary commitment is advancing America's national interest. Because no two states have identical interests, there are going to be moments when even close allies disagree and when the stronger of the two should either use its leverage to alter the weaker ally's behavior or at a minimum decline to support actions it thinks are unwise. What you don't do is simply blindly follow any ally's advice or preferences, no matter how much you might like them. Among other things, that's why formal alliances often include "escape clauses" of various sorts, so that allies don't get "entrapped" by prior commitments.
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Michael C. Desch of Notre Dame offers the following guest post:
There are lots of reasons that President Barack Obama will remain comfortably within the consensus here in the United States and oppose any Palestinian request for recognition of their statehood later this month at the United Nations.
Not opposing the Palestinians' request for U.N. recognition would cut against the grain of U.S. policy toward the region. In a July vote marked by the level of unanimity that is usually only seen in one party "people's democracies," the House of Representatives voted 406 to 6 to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead. The president is also up for re-election next year, and given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the race will be close and he will not want to alienate any potential supporters, including the Israel lobby.
But the problem with our "unwavering" support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: That the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.
The Palestinians' and the rest of the Arab World's unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League's March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has, Hamas notwithstanding, real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.
But it is not clear that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have a partner on the Israeli side. Former head of Israel's secret service the Mossad Meir Dagan, surely no pro-Palestinian dove, has vociferously criticized Netanyahu's lack of vision for failing to offer a credible Israeli peace initiative; a criticism that Netanyahu's ally World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder echoed.
It is the structure of Israel's multi-party democratic political system that gives the roughly 30 percent of the Israeli public unalterably committed to retaining the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem disproportionate influence in Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. There are other potential coalition partners for Netanyahu who support the two state solution, including the Centrist Kadima Party, but Obama needs to prod Netanyahu to embrace them.
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UN Security Council has authorized
the use of force to prevent the loyalist forces backing Muammar al-Qaddafi from
moving on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Given some of the statements
Qaddafi has made in recent days -- in effect threatening some sort of bloodbath
against anyone who does not surrender to his troops -- this reaction isn't all
that surprising. It is one thing to decide that an authoritarian crackdown is
ultimately not worth the risk of war, but rather different to turn a blind eye
when a dictator with a very checkered past starts threatening mass killings. Nonetheless,
I have three comments to make about this latest turn of events.
First, as I wrote a few days ago, this really ought to be a European operation, because Europe has far more significant strategic interests at stake than we do. The United States could provide both diplomatic and logistical back-up, but this is an ideal opportunity for Europeans to learn that they should stop adopting lofty moral positions and then expect Uncle Sucker to do the heavy lifting. U.S. insistence that Arab forces participate in any future operation strikes me as exactly right; the last thing that either Europe or America wants is to be seen as replaying past colonial interventions in some new guise.
Second, the best hope here is that the onset of airstrikes quickly demoralizes the loyalist forces, tips the balance of resolve back toward the rebels, and maybe even convinces Qaddafi to blow town. This might happen, of course, but there are some reasons to be skeptical. Back in 1999, Madeleine Albright thought a few days of airstrikes would convince Slobodan Milosevic to capitulate in the Kosovo War, but the war actually dragged on weeks and he surrendered only after his Russian patrons withdrew their support and convinced him to cut a deal. The problem is that Qaddafi doesn't have a lot of attractive options besides fighting on, which is precisely why he's chosen to act as he has.
Furthermore, using airpower against Qaddafi's army isn't a simple matter, particularly if they taken some elementary precautions, like dispersing or camouflaging equipment. We can bomb airfields and ground air assets, and probably do a number on his command-and-control system, but it's not clear how much that would affect his ability to conduct ground operations against the lightly armed and poorly trained rebel forces. The U.S. Air Force had a lot of trouble finding and destroying Serb military targets during the Kosovo war, and most of the damage it did came from attacks on fixed targets like bridges and power grids.
Let's also remember that we are going to miss some targets and inflict some collateral damage too (remember that Chinese embassy in Belgrade?). As far as I know, we don't have spotters on the ground to do laser target designation, and sending special forces to perform that task has obvious risks of its own. If Qaddafi's forces move into populated areas than even precision guided weapons could kill a lot of innocent bystanders. In fact, going after his ground forces is likely to require attack helicopters and other short-range aircraft (not strategic bombers), and that means using carrier aviation. Which in turn means Uncle Sam. My point is that this situation doesn't seem well-suited to the kind of devastating air assault that we conducted with heavy bombers against the Iraqi army at the start of Desert Storm, or even the adroit and successful air and special forces campaign that ousted the Taliban in 2001-2002.
Third, this whole debate on Libya underscores the importance of something that enthusiastic war hawks always forget: opportunity costs. Just imagine how different this discussion might be if the United States hadn't already fought a long, costly, and unsuccessful war in Iraq, and if we weren't now bogged down in another quagmire in Afghanistan. For that matter, it would look different if Barack Obama had wisely chosen to get out of Afghanistan back in 2009, so that the U.S. military could start rebuilding itself after a decade or war. If we do go into Libya, and it ends up being harder than we think, and then something serious happens somewhere else (North Korea, the South China Sea, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Mexico, etc.), what do we do then?
It is obviously excruciating to watch a tyrant like Qaddafi defy a popular uprising, and kill his own countrymen solely for the purpose of defending his egomaniacal rule. Let us therefore hope that this politico-military equivalent of a Hail Mary pass will work. Let us also give some credit to Obama's diplomacy: instead of making this yet another impulsive American crusade, he has insisted that the United States be part of a genuine, diverse international coalition. He's not dragging the country to war; he's waited until others have been positively begging us to do something. If it succeeds, we can all be pleased. If it goes badly, or proves more difficult than we think, at least the United States won't be bearing all of the responsibility or all of the costs. That's something. But we will be bearing some of the burden, and it's by no means obvious that it will be worth it.
UPDATE: In an encouraging sign, the Qaddafi regime has reacted to the UN resolution by declaring an immediate cease-fire, which suggests that prospect of outside intervention has induced some second thoughts about his campaign to crush the rebellion by force. The offer has been rejected by the Western powers, who are reportedly demaind concrete steps (such as a withdrawal off his forces from Benghazi) and not just words. This diplomatic dance shows just how uncertain and open-ended this whole business could be: Qaddafi may be unable to retake the whole country now, but the rebels may not be able to force him out either in the absence of direct outside involvement (possibly including troops on the ground). And if that happens, we could be back in the business of occupying a Muslim country that is internally divided and has been severely damaged by decades of misrule and economic sanctions. For a good analysis, see FP's Marc Lynch here.
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I've been thinking about how the international community should deal with the Libyan civil war, and like the Obama administration, I'm finding it hard to come up with a policy that leaves me completely satisfied. I'd like to see Qaddafi's regime replaced by a government that is less brutal, capricious, and inefficient, as well as one that would be more responsive to the desires and welfare of the Libyan people. And the sooner the better. For this reason, I support the various measures that have been taken to condemn Qaddafi's actions and to freeze his assets. We should also be open to providing humanitarian aid (such as food relief) to rebel-controlled areas, should that become necessary to avoid a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
At the same time, I'm cognizant that it is easier to take on new military commitments than it is to relinquish them -- even in the best of circumstances -- and that external intervention in civil conflicts often has unpredictable and unforeseen consequences. So instead of firm prescriptions, here are a few observations that have struck me as I've pondered.
For starters, let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle. Libyan oil production (about 1.6 million barrels/day prior to the recent violence) is valuable but not decisive, and can be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia. Libya has no WMD (having been compelled to give up its various WMD programs by a protracted Western-led sanctions campaign), and it is not a significant military power. Qaddafi has no links to al Qaeda (in fact, he's been a target of al Qaeda sympathizers in the past) and few, if any allies in the rest of the world. Libya's population is less than 7 million, and its economy (apart from oil) is unimpressive. Despite Qaddafi's many unsavory qualities and hostile acts, most U.S. presidents ultimately concluded that he was not important enough to remove from power, though the Reagan administration did target his residence in a bombing raid back in the 1980s.
Thus, the U.S. (and international) interest here is humanitarian, not strategic, which does not by itself mean that we should do nothing. What is going on in Libya does not constitute genocide -- a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole category of people -- but the government's actions are clearly brutal, inhumane, and almost certainly involve war crimes. It thus falls squarely under the heading of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine (R2P), a new norm of humanitarian intervention promulgated with some fanfare a few years ago. R2P says "where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect" (my emphasis).
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Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn't question Israel's legitimacy, didn't declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn't call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.
There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.
Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn't bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government's own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn't the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.
This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn't make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn't recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama's Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.
Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia -- all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it's not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.
With one caveat, I'll give Obama's team credit for the deft endorsement of India becoming a permanent member (with veto powers) of the U.N. Security Council. It was a smart move because it appealed to India's sense of national pride, and because it didn't cost the United States much. Washington's opinion on this issue matters somewhat, but it doesn't get to determine the composition of the SC by itself and so Obama's endorsement of Indian membership was a bit of cheap talk that nonetheless managed to delight his Indian hosts. If it helped convince the Indian government to back the U.S. position at the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul, then that's a pretty smart deal.
In fact, reforming the U.N. Security Council would be a major undertaking, and it's not going to happen anytime soon. Other P-5 members will be wary of having their own influence and status diluted by the addition of new members, and China wouldn't be thrilled either. There are also plenty of other aspirants -- Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa, etc. -- who would be more than a little irritated if India got in and they didn't.
So the only real objection to Obama's endorsement is that it might annoy these countries (and Pakistan, of course, which has already expressed its opposition to the idea). My caveat, therefore, is to wonder whether the good will won in India is outweighed by irritation in other quarters. I'd bet not, if only because SC reform is not exactly a burning issue on anybody's agenda.
The other issue that is becoming clearer, however, is the fundamental strategic contradiction in America's South Asia policy. On the one hand, because we are deeply mired in a war in Afghanistan, and because the Taliban and other extremist groups operate in and out of Pakistan, we have to try to work with the Pakistani government despite its many problems and our growing unpopularity in that country. At the same time, there are larger strategic imperatives pushing the United States to move closer to India. Indeed, Obama even referred to U.S.-Indian strategic partnership as an "indispensable" feature of the 21st century. But a deeper U.S. partnership with India drives Pakistan crazy, encourages some parts of the Pakistani government to hedge bets by backing the Taliban, complicating the U.S. effort to make progress in Afghanistan. One can even imagine some Pakistanis wanting to prolong the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, precisely because our military presence there makes us more dependent on them and thus gives Islamabad some degree of influence and leverage over us.
Notice, however, that this problem would diminish significantly if the United States were not stuck in a costly counter-insurgency and nation-building exercise in Central Asia. If we weren't trying to build a effective centralized state in Afghanistan, while simultaneously attacking militants in Pakistan's fronteir provinces, then we would be free to move closer to India without facing potential blowback elsewhere. And if we weren't constantly interfering in Pakistan too, we might actually discover that they resented us less. In other words, if we were acting more like an offshore balancer, and less like an post-colonial nation-builder, it would be a lot easier to design a less tortured South Asia strategy. Add that to your list of reasons to find a new way forward in our Afghan misadventure.
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People like me tend to focus on problems, mostly because we are interested in finding ways to address them and thereby improve the human condition. Nonetheless, we should occasionally remind ourselves that all is not doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are plenty of reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the state of the world today, and maybe even about the future. The overall level of global violence is at historic lows (despite some tragic conflicts that still defy solution), the world economy has done very well over the past half-century (despite its recent problems) and life expectancy, public health, and education levels have risen dramatically in many parts of the world (though conditions in a few places have deteriorated badly).
So Cassandra-like pessimism may not be appropriate, even for a realist. Nonetheless, I am beginning to wonder if our ability to deal with various global problems is decreasing, mostly due to the deterioration of political institutions at both the global and domestic level. Here are some tentative thoughts in that direction.
One way to think about the current state of world politics is as a ratio of the number of important problems to be solved and our overall "problem-solving capacity." When the ratio of "emerging problems" to "problem-solving capacity" rises, challenges pile up faster than we can deal with them and we end up neglecting some important issues and mishandling others. Something of this sort happened during the 1930s, for example, when a fatal combination of global economic depression, aggressive dictatorships, inadequate institutions, declining empires, and incomplete knowledge overwhelmed leaders around the world and led to a devastating world war.
Human society is not static, which means that new challenges are an inevitable part of the human condition. New problems arise from the growth of societies, from new ideas, from our interactions with the natural world, and even from the unintended consequences of past successes. As a result, policymakers are always going to face new problems, even when the old ones remain unresolved.
Moreover, a key feature of contemporary globalization is that today's problems tend to be more complex and more far-reaching, and tend to spread with greater speed. A volcano in Iceland disrupts air travel in Europe. A failed state in Afghanistan nurtures a terrorist network that eventually strikes on several continents. The Internet doesn't even exist in 1990, but now it empowers democratic forces, facilitates commerce and intellectual exchange, and enable extremists to recruit supporters and transmit tactical advice all around the world. The HIV virus emerges in Africa and eventually infects millions of human beings on every continent. Bankers in America's mortgage industry makes foolish and venal decisions, and a global financial collapse wipes out trillions of dollars of wealth and affects the lives of billions of people, some of them dramatically. Human beings in the developed world burn carbon fuels for a couple of centuries and now poor countries on the other side of the world face the risk of widespread coastal flooding (or worse) in the decades ahead. In short, the numerator of our critical ratio -- i.e., the rate at which big problems are emerging-seems to be rising.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.