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Libya and the Obama doctrine

Published:Sunday | April 3, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Libyan rebels rest next to an anti-aircraft gun that is positioned by the western gate of Ajdabiya, Libya, last Friday. - AP

Ian Boyne, Contributor

Why is the West suddenly concerned about dictators who slaughter their own people, and why has it launched Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya when it stood by and allowed millions to be butchered in Rwanda, Darfur, Congo and Burma? Is it just for the oil?

Those who follow international relations know that the United States (US) and other Western powers have relatively little strategic interest in Libya. Though he is every bit as hostile to democracy as he was when he came to power 41 years ago, Muammar Gaddafi is not the threat to the West that he was decades ago when he was a major sponsor of international terrorism and one of the US's most infamous belligerents.

In 2003, he dramatically renounced his nuclear programme, toned down his fiery anti-Western rhetoric and was embraced by the West as a bad boy who put aside some childish ways. The impact of the Bush doctrine and the launch of the Iraq war, geopolitical specialists say, sent him the message that the US was serious about punishing enemies. His renunciation of his nuclear programme was hailed by neoconservative foreign-policy experts as a vindication of Bush's muscular foreign policy.

Libya is tiny compared to Egypt - with a population of 6.5 million compared with Egypt's 83 million. It barely has three per cent of the world's proven oil reserves. And Operation Odyssey Dawn is quite costly to the deficit-ridden, economically pressured Obama administration. The establishment and maintenance of the no-fly zone alone could cost between $1.18 billion and $3.4 billion over a six-month period - even with European leadership.

In his address to the American people last week, President Obama made it clear why the US had intervened in Libya: "There will be times when our security is not directly threatened, but our interest and our values are," the president told the American people. To allow the massacre of Libyans, he explained, would have "stained the conscience of the world".

Confronting his critics, he said, "to brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and - more profoundly - our responsibilities to our fellow human beings would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

The president addressed the issue of hypocrisy and double standards which have been hurled at him from the Left and the Right, and challenged the isolationist strain in American foreign policy (explained thoroughly by pre-eminent foreign-policy scholar Walter Russell Mead in his award-winning book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World). Obama noted the criticism that there are other countries where human-rights violations are taking place, for example, in Cte d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, as well as in American client states such as Yemen and Bahrain - and yet the US is not intervening.

No exclusive right

But he countered that the fact that America cannot intervene everywhere does not mean it should not act anywhere. Indeed, in the National Security Strategy released by the Obama administration in May last year, the administration commits to work "both multilaterally and bilaterally to mobilise diplomatic, humanitarian, financial and - in certain instances - military means to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities." Indeed, a profound ideological victory has been scored with the mainstreaming of the view that a state has no exclusive right to the sanctity of its borders.

It has taken much ideological work and activism - and painful, bitter experiences with real-world horrors such as those in Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan Congo - to overturn the sacrosanct Westphalian state.

What is taking place in Libya today is a victory for the concept of what is known as the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, derived from that influential Canadian commission set up in 2001. In 2005, United Nations members adopted a document adopting those principles and privileging humanitarian intervention over the traditional doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of states - which has been used as a fig leaf to cover the nakedness of oppressive, brutal regimes.

The international community now accepts that no state has the right to oppress and slaughter its own people simply because they are in its borders. Previous humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo have attracted their own controversy - and authoritarian states such as China and Russia continue to be wary of the concept for self-serving reasons partially. But it is an idea whose time has come.

Says the Responsibility to Protect Report: "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 and unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect." In September 1999, after the brutal ethnic cleansing that Serbia perpetrated on the civilian population of Kosovo, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan - to whom much of the credit belongs for international advocacy of this concept - addressed the General Assembly on humanitarian intervention.

He asked poignantly: "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?" To Annan, an appropriate response to atrocities constituted "the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations (UN) as a whole in the next century". The Libyan intervention represents the first implementation of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine accepted by the 2005 UN General Assembly. Hooray to the power of ideas!

Ideal circumstances

The Libyan situation presented the ideal circumstances for US intervention and the implementation of the Obama doctrine of multilateralism and liberal internationalism. The right wing hates any notion that America must act in alliances, follow the United Nations and international law. It promotes a rigid unilateralism, believing in a jaundiced American exceptionalism.

In the case of Operation Odyssey Dawn, the UN passed Resolution 1973 authorising the international community to act; France and Britain were enthusiastic leaders in the initiative along with other European nations and, most significantly, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference have given full support.

Arabs welcoming Western military strikes against another Arab state doesn't hurt. In other cases, such as Congo, Sudan and Somalia, the situation was not as favouring and was far more complex internally.

This is why the situation in Libya is so delicate. The Obama administration, despite the criticism of acting too slowly, has moved rapidly, unlike any other administration, in dealing with atrocities. It took much longer for the US to respond to atrocities in Bosnia, Kosovo and Somalia. The US has already moved to freeze US$32 billion in Libyan assets.

Says the Center for New American Security in a policy brief titled 'Forging a Libya Strategy: Policy Recommendations' for the Obama administration: "The new regime of international financial sanctions against the Gaddafi regime has been unusually swift and comprehensive."

But the cover story in this week's Time Magazine asks the pivotal question many in the foreign-policy establishment in the US are asking: "What if he doesn't go?' Great Powers can't afford to talk strong and not ensure their words are followed through. It strikes at pride and credibility. Obama has said Gaddafi must go, but the UN resolution does not authorise boots on the ground. Yet, how can the coalition ensure that the dictator goes if it does not arm rebels and send troops to fight against Gaddafi's forces?

Already, reports are emerging that Obama has authorised a secret plan to arm rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency is reportedly heavily involved in Libya. The West and the Arab countries are determined that Gaddafi must go. But dictators are notoriously defiant of the West's demands.

Then there are issues involving the character of the rebel groups. Are Al-Qaida operatives among them? Are the rebels Islamist extremists? As in other Arab countries, the opposition is not easily identifiable and organised - the consequence of years of repression, persecution and lack of a civil society.

There are many unanswered questions.

But the troubling 'known' - to use Donald Rumsfeld's language - is the fact that all the BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China - failed to vote for Resolution 1973 authorising intervention. India, because of its historical role in the Non-alignment Movement, is still averse to intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. But the reasons for the abstention of China and Russia are more troubling and more pernicious. These are genetically authoritarian, repressive states.

Authoritarian China

One of the troubling things in what Fareed Zakaria calls the post-American world is the rise of authoritarian China as a Great Power and the resurgence of Russia. The US and the UN Security Council have been frustrated in attempts to bring pressure to bear on authoritarian states like Burma, Sudan, Congo and Zimbabwe because China has been supporting these states. (The US has pulled some concessions recently but after much effort.)

A must-read essay eloquently highlighting the dangers of an international system where China has significant weight is Robert Kagan's 'End of dreams, return of history' in the August-September issue of the journal Policy Review. The Hoover Institution's Kagan is the most intellectual rigorous of the neoconservative scholars in America.

Says Kagan insightfully: "The Cold War may have caused us to forget that the more enduring ideological conflict since the Enlightenment has not been between capitalism and communism, but between liberalism and autocracy ... China and Russia do have a set of beliefs that guide them in both domestic and foreign policy. They believe autocracy is better for their nations than democracy. Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world." Their vote on Libya is consistent with that.

Ian Boyne is a media practitioner and chief state liaison. Email feedback to and