The UN’s Pyrrhic Victory

All 15 members of the United Nations Security Council voted to impose sanctions of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s wildly-flailing regime.  This level of unanimity is a major political milestone for the Security Council; at the moment, though, it isn’t clear it has been of any consequence whatever.

The principle behind the resolution is certainly important: Almost no government in the World will do business with the Gaddafi regime in Libya as it collapses, visiting carnage upon subjects in restive cities close to and including the capital in a frenzied and likely doomed attempt to preserve the Great Leader of the Libyan Revolution’s 42-year-old dictatorship.  Because of the unlikelihood of any of the 5 Permanent Members of the Security Council providing meaningful assistance to the Gaddafi regime in these days of civil war violence, it was a little frustrating to see the delegates to the Security Council dislocate their shoulders in their rush to pat themselves on the back.

I should be clear about something: I do not blame the various UN ambassadors on the Security Council.  They are representing their governments’ positions, and those whose governments may have been more-beneficent in their inclinations still had to win China and possibly Russia over, on the imposition of sanctions against Libya for its harsh repression in progress.  China’s and Russia’s ambassadors to the UN also have to represent their country’s positions to the United Nations or they will simply be replaced.  One might say someone should do what Libya’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN did and take a stand, protesting the actions of their own government.  (The issue is that at crucial moments like this, China and Russia initially insist, Russia generally with the use of a veto, that dictators retain the sovereignty to dispose of their people as they see fit.)  That would be a lot to ask of the Chinese and Russian ambassadors, as they would not only be forced to resign their positions but likely face censure from their government if they went home.  Such a gesture by an ambassador from any of the other 3 Permanent Members of the Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) might do injury to their respective governments’ other compelling foreign policy interests before the UN, both through the embarrassment to their government and the discontinuity caused by their resignation.  Long story short, the ambassadors to the Security Council haven’t personally shamed themselves by representing their governments’ mostly-glacial if not antagonistic positions towards a no-fly zone over Libya.

But while they may not have shamed themselves, sanctions on Libya may not do any good in practice.  The Economist reports that Gaddafi has $140 billion in cash reserves on-hand–and the transport ability to run mercenaries and guns safely through the southwest of his country from Chad and Niger.  The sanctions also technically prohibit restocking the Rebels’ ammunition–assistance that could prove decisive in a further push on Sirte or a final move on Tripoli.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner made a compelling case last week that the degeneration of Libya’s democratic uprising into tense, bloody civil warfare dampened the momentum behind Middle Eastern protests generally.  Following the deposition of presidents-for-life in just 28 days of protests in Tunisia and 18 days of protests in Egypt, regimes are seriously-threatened in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, and while the opposition in Oman doesn’t seem to have a major constituency, the relatively-liberal King may feel compelled to make significant concessions there.

Without a no-fly zone, Gaddafi has managed to turn the tide in many key cities with the use of air power.  Rebel forces in Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf, Brega and Ajdabiya–a string of towns between Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte and core Rebel territory in Cyrenaica–have come under regular attack by Gaddafi’s air force.  One air strike several days ago in Ajdabiya raised fears that a subsequent bombing may destroy the city itself; an al-Jazeera reporter in Ajdabiya noted that the bomb was dropped close to the city’s large gas tanks, momentarily raising the risk of a gaseous explosion that could smother everyone in the city.

The major newspapers have expressed frustration bordering on contempt for President Obama’s sorry combination of strong language against Gaddafi and manifest reluctance to act on it.  On Wednesday, March 9th the New York Times’s lead editorial had fitting harsh words for the consequences of President Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his own white lines through a no-fly zone:

“The Obama administration is throwing out so many conflicting messages on Libya that they are blunting any potential pressure on the Libyan regime and weakening American credibility.  It’s dangerous to make threats if you’re not prepared to follow through.  All of the public hand-wringing has made it even worse.”

The Times editorial became more-equivocal after this, insisting that any unilateral US military action in another Middle Eastern country would be unsustainable (though that is simply untrue in the case of a no-fly zone, the course of action the editorial specifically mentioned).  The Washington Post had a better editorial yesterday with a simpler message: The President’s specific actions on this case haven’t merely been “dangerous;” they have actually made the situation on the ground in Libya worse.  The Post‘s editorial makes much the argument I have above–that an ineffectual resolution unanimously supported in a very short space of time is still an ineffectual resolution.  It insightfully condemned much of the substance of these resolutions to-date, noting that the referred of Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity means the rational course of action might actually be for him to stay and fight, since he and many of his sons are sure to lose their freedom if they leave Libya.  Furthermore, the Post‘s editorial addressed an idiocy of the arms embargo imposed on Libya, in that it prohibits weapons sales to the Gaddafi Loyalists and the Rebels.  Meanwhile, Gaddafi has billions of dollars in cash reserves on-hand and the air power to recruit more mercenaries from Chad and Niger.

The Liberal Ironist frankly had expected the Rebels to be in Tripoli by now; but I’d had a bad feeling the moment Secretary of State Clinton, and then President Obama, said Gaddafi’s early rash of indiscriminate violence against his people was “unacceptable.”  For some reason I immediately had the suspicion that this word was intended to give the impression that we might do something about the violence he had unleashed…so that Gaddafi would relent and we wouldn’t have to.  Instead of relenting, Gaddafi has fought it out, willingly plunging his own country into civil war to maintain his despotic rule.  In using tough talk and then .  A unanimous UN Security Council resolution simply gave us plausible deniability for our failure to protect a democratic revolution from one of the World’s most-outrageous tyrants.

For now, I’m waiting on British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy to lead the way at an ongoing NATO summit in Brussels.

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