CANBERRA — On March 17, Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized the use of “all necessary measures,” short of an invasion and occupation, “to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas”: the first United Nations-sanctioned combat operations since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Resolution 1973 was passed by a 10-0 vote within 24 hours of being introduced, contrary to prevailing expectations that the world once again would watch fecklessly from the sidelines.

In Bosnia, it took NATO over a year to intervene in 1999 with air power. In Libya, it took just one month to mobilize a broad coalition, secure a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, establish and enforce no-fly and no-drive zones, stop Moammar Gadhafi’s advancing army, and prevent a massacre in Benghazi.

The game-changer was the juxtaposition of “R2P” (responsibility to protect) as a powerful new galvanizing norm; the defection of Libyan diplomats who joined the chorus of calls for immediate action to protect civilians; and the request for a no-fly zone by the Arab League.

The key decision was made by President Barack Obama at a White House meeting of top officials on March 15. His speech on March 28, spelling out the rationale and terms of Libyan engagement very much in the language of R2P, showed the decisive influence of aide Samantha Power, who previously had written about the searing legacy of doing nothing during the Rwanda genocide.

There are many risks and dangers. The military operations could prove inconclusive, inflaming the region further. Obama’s pivot from no action to intervention suggests that U.S. policy is reactive, not strategic. There are inconsistencies in the muted response to protests and uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia where vital U.S. geopolitical and oil interests are directly engaged.

Every government has the right to fight an armed uprising. How, exactly, can R2P be implemented to protect civilians without intervening in a civil war? Who are the rebels? What do they stand for? For whom do they speak? How much popular support do they command?

With humanitarian protection, the balance of risks has to be shifted back from civilians to soldiers.

There are “unknown unknowns,” in former U.S. Defense Secretary’s Donald Rumsfeld’s memorable phrasing. The risks of no action were “known knowns.” Gadhafi would have prevailed and embarked on a methodical killing spree of rebel leaders, cities and regions. The decisive factor for many was the threat, entirely credible, to hunt down opponents house by house, room by room, without mercy or pity.

The recapture of Benghazi would have marked the end of the rebellion against Gadhafi’s rule. Had the world shirked its responsibility, Libya could have been the graveyard of the new R2P norm and the U.N. might as well have sounded the last post for it. Instead, the U.N.-mandated intervention may mark the beginning of the end for Gadhafi.

It also marks a pivotal rebalancing of interests and values by the Arabs, the West, and the U.N. For the first time in half a century, the West is aligning itself with the Arab peoples’ aspirations for dignity, democracy and respect instead of humiliation and brutalization.

In the old world order, international politics, like all politics, was a struggle for power. The new international politics will be about the struggle for the ascendancy of competing normative architectures based on a combination of power, values and ideas.

In his March 28 speech, Obama explained that the United States is “reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.”

In the words of the illustrious Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, the U.N. was “not created in order to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell.” Failures in Africa and the Balkans in the 1990s reflected structural, political and operational deficiencies that accounted for its inability to save people from a life of hell on earth.

R2P responds to the idealized U.N. as the symbol of an imagined and constructed community of strangers: We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

R2P gave Obama the necessary intellectual and normative tool to act. He decided to side with pro-interventionist advisers in favor of a definition of the Libyan crisis that was closer to his instincts and consistent with the narrative that won him the White House.

The Arab League and Franco-British urgings gave him political cover and international legitimacy. In Iraq in 2003, Washington had done all the pushing but doors had stayed firmly shut in most capitals. In Libya, Washington has been the reluctant follower, not the ardent suitor for military intervention.

Resolution 1973 restricts military action to protecting Libya’s civilian population from attacks by its own government. It prohibits occupying or dismembering the country. Any final settlement of the conflict must be political, not military. Thus Libya is not Iraq nor even Afghanistan. The international community is as sensitive as Americans to fears of Western occupation of yet a third Muslim country.

Obama’s insistence that the U.S. will not be deploying ground troops aligns military means to the limited ambitions and objectives: humanitarian protection, not regime change. In contrast to the Bush doctrine, under Obama the U.S. will act in concert with others, not alone; coax, persuade and heed, not impose its will, on others; and set clear limits on goals and means.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has been impressively firm and consistent on R2P, leading from the front. He noted that Resolution 1973 “affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community’s determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government.” The future of R2P will be shaped by the course of events in Libya.

Ramesh Thakur, professor of international relations, Australian National University, was an “R2P” commissioner and a principal author of its report. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (2011).

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