Obama, Libya and the commitment to limits

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Once upon a time, a U.S. president was appalled by the actions of a murderous Arab dictator. He got the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force to stop the dictator, put together a coalition of NATO and Arab countries, and did precisely that. Sound familiar?

The president’s name was George Herbert Walker Bush, and the Arab dictator was called Saddam Hussein. Saddam had invaded the sovereign state of Kuwait, and the U.N. authorized Bush to drive him out. It did not authorize him to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam — so he didn’t.

The senior Bush has been vilified ever since for sticking to the letter of the U.N. resolution, and not using his army to overthrow Saddam when he had the chance. What are the odds that President Barack Obama will do the same and not overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya? Pretty good, if you believe what he says.

“Our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives,” Obama said in his speech March 28, denying that the real goal of the air campaign against Gadhafi’s military forces was regime change. The United States had acted militarily because it “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” but there would be no foreign troops in Libya and no direct attempt to overthrow Gadhafi.

If Obama sticks to that resolve, then there is a very good chance that Gadhafi will still be in power, in the western half of a divided Libya, five years from now. The cities of Tripolitania (western Libya) have already been reduced to submission by his forces, with the sole exception of Misrata, and the rebels in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) show no sign of being able to defeat his army in the field.

Should Gadhafi try once more to reconquer Cyrenaica, then the air power of the coalition (basically the NATO countries but also including a few Arab countries) will stop him again. But if he just consolidates his hold on the west, who’s going to force him out?

Certainly not the hysterical rabble of rebel fighters who repeatedly charge west along the coast highway, and then come fleeing back as soon as they stumble into the first ambush.

U.S. troops could easily drive Gadhafi from power if they were let off the leash, but Security Council Resolution 1973 does not permit the entry of foreign troops into Libya. Moreover, no Arab country wants to see this too-familiar sight once again.

If Obama abides by the terms of the U.N. resolution, however, he is likely to end up in the same awkward position as his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush. He will have sent U.S. forces into battle, and yet he will not have got rid of the bad guy.

Is that such a terrible thing?

George Bush senior was acting to repel an unprovoked invasion when he committed American forces to the liberation of Kuwait, but he was also trying to restore the role of the U.N. Security Council as the bulwark against aggressive war. The Cold War had just ended, and Saddam’s invasion of Iraq was an opportunity to demonstrate how the system should work.

That’s why the senior Bush would not exceed the limits of his authority as an enforcer of the U.N. rules against aggression. The U.N. had not authorized him to overthrow Saddam, and so he did not. He then muddied the waters by calling on the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq to rebel, and standing by while Saddam massacred them, but that does not invalidate his original decision.

Fast-forward 20 years, and Barack Obama is trying to enforce a fragile new U.N. rule: that the Security Council may authorize military intervention if massive abuses of human rights are being committed by the government. He has carried out the intervention, and the wholesale massacres that would probably have occurred if Gadhafi’s troops had overrun Cyrenaica have been averted.

That’s the limit of Obama’s U.N. mandate, so, like George H.W. Bush, he should now stop. The aerial campaign was meant to prevent mass killing, not to provide the rebels with close air support in what has become a civil war.

One side in this civil war is run by a brutal and cynical dictator, while the people on the other side are brave idealists seeking democracy, but that doesn’t mean that foreigners should decide the outcome. That would be contrary to international law — and besides, if there is to be a real democratic revolution in Libya, then the Libyans must do it for themselves.

If that means that Libya must spend some months or years as a divided country, with the western half still under Gadhafi’s yoke, then so be it. The only legitimate tools that foreigners may use against him are financial sanctions, trade boycotts and diplomatic isolation.

Cut off his cash flow, and Gadhafi might fall quite quickly. Or he might not, which would be a pity. But the only reason that Resolution 1973 got the support of the Arab League, and abstentions by China, Russia and India, was that it authorized military action to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack.” And that is all that the coalition should do.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars,” is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.