Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, and NATO's top military commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, took to the pages of the latest Foreign Affairs for an unusual but deserved victory lap over the campaign that led to the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. It was, the two argued, "a model intervention."
They are right, it was. But with the carnage continuing in Homs and elsewhere as the Bashar Assad regime tries to crush the popular uprising threatening his hold on Syria, it seems that U.S. policy toward Syria has become a prisoner of our "model intervention" in Libya. If the purpose of U.S. policy in Syria is to prevent more slaughter of civilians, to give Assad a push out the door, and incidentally to deal Iran a major strategic setback, it's time to put aside the Libya "model." The political and diplomatic conditions under which the Libya intervention unfolded were all but uniquely favorable — the only other contender for the title would be that in which George H. W. Bush organized the intervention to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990-91. If we insist on duplicating the Libya model for intervention in Syria, Assad will have all the time he needs to wipe out the rebellion, at who knows what human cost.
From the standpoint of international law and legitimacy, Libya had it all. First came U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970, unanimously adopted in Feb. 2011 as Qaddafi's repression against the nascent Libyan opposition began to intensify. It deplored Qaddafi's "gross and systematic violation of human rights" and demanded an end to the violence; imposed an arms embargo on the regime and a travel ban and asset freeze on Qaddafi and his closest cronies; and referred the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation into atrocity crimes. It's likely that many hoped Resolution 1970 by itself would persuade Qaddafi to head for an exit. That hope was misplaced if not naïve, but the unanimous resolution paved the way for follow-up action once Qaddafi chose defiance.
The Arab League, the regional organization whose secretary general had already announced the suspension of Libya's membership, in March took the unprecedented further step of calling on the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone. Though stopping well short of a call for international military action to aid in Qaddafi's overthrow, the Arab League request was a diplomatic milestone in establishing regional support for outside intervention against an Arab state.
Meanwhile, France and Great Britain took the lead in calling for military action to save the imperiled Libyan opposition. Although the position of U.S. allies on point led one anonymous Obama administration official notoriously to dub the administration's posture "leading from behind," there likely were diplomatic advantages in having someone besides the United States as chief proponent of a new round of military intervention in the greater Middle East.
Galvanized in part by the Arab League request, in part by the advance of Qaddafi's forces on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi and Qaddafi's rhetoric promising to destroy the resistance there, and in the last analysis by the Obama administration's eleventh-hour determination to press at the U.N. for a new resolution authorizing military action to protect the Libyan opposition from slaughter, the Security Council on March 17 passed Resolution 1973, citing the "need to protect" civilians from Qaddafi's forces and authorizing "all necessary measures." The Russians were skeptical and the Chinese wary, but neither chose to exercise their veto, instead abstaining.
The prosecutor at the ICC, meanwhile, moving at record speed, on June 27 obtained a warrant for the arrest of Qaddafi, his son Saif, and his secret police chief on charges of crimes against humanity. In diplomatic circles in Washington and among allies, the ICC warrant served as a proxy delegitimizer for the Qaddafi regime overall, bridging the gap between the Security Council resolution authorizing civilian protection and the avowed goal of the United States, France, and Great Britain, namely, that Qaddafi must go.
Then came the decision of NATO, the world's most powerful military alliance, to take charge of the operation. The result was a successful campaign in which France and Britain, among other allies, participated at a level some might have believed beyond their capabilities. It ended with Qaddafi dead and zero NATO casualties.
One can certainly fault the Obama administration's decision to avoid obtaining congressional approval for the Libyan adventure, as well as the high-handed legal sophistry the administration employed to deny that its "limited military action" amounted to engagement in "hostilities." One could fairly say that the administration was more scrupulous about dotting the i's and crossing the t's on international law and legitimacy than it was domestically. But from the point of view of effective international action, "model intervention" seems more than mere hubris.
Alas, poor Syria. Many commentators have hastened to point out that Assad's Syria and Qaddafi's Libya have nothing in common. They are right — except for their brutally repressive rulers willing to massacre their own people.
A Security Council resolution tightening sanctions on Syria was impossible thanks to Russian and Chinese vetoes. The International Criminal Court prosecutor cannot begin an investigation of the Assad regime's atrocities in the absence of a Security Council resolution because Syria is not a member of the court. The Arab League, said to be wary after the transmogrification of its request for protection for the Libyan rebels into a mandate for using NATO to hunt Qaddafi down, has been dithering over the extent of its opposition to Assad.
NATO's political decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, has apparently been unable to agree even to discuss Syria. The NATO secretary general, speaking for whom it is impossible to say, has averred that he doesn't "envision... a role for the alliance" in Syria and is punting back to the Arab League, in a classic exercise in responsibility avoidance. NATO defense ministers agreed last March that the criteria for NATO intervention (assuming the means are available) are demonstrable need, a sound legal basis, and regional support. Point one has undeniably been met, but the second criterion is a major hurdle without a U.N. resolution.
As matters stand, intervention in Syria would be anything but a "model." The real question for the Obama administration, however, is whether Libya has set a standard for intervention so pristine as to render the United States incapable of action in the absence of perfect conditions. Time is running out for the administration to demonstrate otherwise.
By all means, the United States should press (and presumably is pressing) to alter the conditions creating the current blockage. The Syrian opposition should formally ask NATO for help. So should the Arab League. Washington should gather a coalition of the willing around protective military action by CENTCOM, the U.S. command in the Middle East. The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court should step forward to formally ask the Security Council for a resolution granting the court jurisdiction over Assad's crimes. More and varied pressure needs to be applied to the Arab League. Russia may have a price.
These and other potential game-changers are well worth pursuing. But if the game doesn't change, or the change falls short of "model intervention," that doesn't mean the United States should do nothing. It means we'll have to lead from the front.