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Reading the Tea Leaves in Libya

What's Next After the Recent U.N. Authorization of Force

SOURCE: AP/Jerome Delay

Libya's Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa reads a statement declaring a ceasefire on military operations to foreign journalists at a hotel in in Tripoli on March 18, 2011. The statement came shortly after a UN Security Council Resolution that allows the broad use of force to protect civilians on the ground in Libya.

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The UN Security Council approved a Chapter VII resolution yesterday that allows the broad use of force to protect civilians on the ground in Libya. The situation is moving rapidly, and this is a good time to step back and draw some key lessons from the last week while looking ahead to what might unfold on the ground.

Yesterday’s UN Security Council vote was remarkable whether one supports military intervention in Libya or not. Just days ago most observers thought a no-fly zone—where international forces would prevent Libyan planes from flying in Libyan airspace to launch attacks—was unlikely to garner enough support at the United Nations. But the Security Council not only endorsed one yesterday but also authorized all necessary means to protect civilians. That clearly includes strikes against Libyan ground assets such as tanks.

This is a sweeping Chapter VII mandate. It must have required U.S. and other diplomats in New York to do a great deal of heavy lifting. In many ways, the vote is a striking validation of both the Obama administration’s emphasis on renewed multilateralism over the last two years and Qaddafi’s lack of friends in capitals outside of Africa.

It’s also worth pointing out that we would be in a very different position right now if the administration had followed the advice of Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, or John Bolton and unilaterally launched attacks against Libya.

Their route would have meant no U.N. authorization for the mission and no Arab League support. Moreover, the U.S. military—and U.S. taxpayers—would be in this all alone instead of having trusted allies such as the United Kingdom and France lead military operations.

The administration, though, didn’t endorse a multilateral approach because it likes talking to foreign diplomats in New York. It backed it because such an approach allows for far greater moral authority, burden-sharing, and shared vision when it comes to these kinds of operations.

Indeed, the importance of the Arab League’s position supporting robust action in Libya cannot be overstated. We need to keep a close eye on how this support holds up if allied aerial attacks against Libya commence and things get messier on the ground.

The administration did a good job laying the diplomatic groundwork with our allies. Now it needs to do a better job spelling out to the American public what we are or are not getting into in Libya. There have been discussions with our allies behind the scenes about what exactly burden-sharing will look like and what role, if any, the U.S. military will play. But the administration needs to make a much stronger effort to reach out to the public and explain the contours of where we’re doing in Libya.

Qaddafi, for his part, could not have done more to get the resolution passed if he sent an envoy to New York to vote in the affirmative. Announcing that his forces would hunt down people in their closets moments before the vote only underscored the sense that there were few alternatives to force.

Concerns about mass reprisals by Qaddafi’s forces against the opposition and civilian populations were widespread and legitimate. Some groups were calling for a ceasefire and negotiations rather than the use of force before the U.N. vote. But Qaddafi’s obvious instability and the advances of his forces on the ground convinced the Security Council that they had little alternative but to resort to force.

The U.N. vote, however, does not make clear the actual endgame to the West’s strategy in Libya. The mandate allows attacks against air assets and tanks and other forces threatening civilians on the ground. But if Qaddafi and his troops pulled back and declared a ceasefire the international community could be left in a very awkward position with a divided Libya and two ill-functioning ministates.

Just today, a Libyan foreign ministry spokesman sounded suddenly conciliatory and said the government was ready for a ceasefire. This statement is being greeted with the skepticism it deserves. It is certainly hard to take the government seriously when it offers an olive branch a day after threatening to eradicate the opposition forces and their families.

The very real prospect of force may have clarified Tripoli’s thinking in new ways. But their intent can only be judged by events on the ground. There could be divisions within the UN Security Council about how to respond to a potential ceasefire offer and to what “civilian protection” actually entails going forward if U.N.-authorized attacks are carried out.

In any case, it is absolutely essential that the international community get the post-conflict period right if Qaddafi topples. We simply cannot afford—in any sense of the word—another messy and unprofessional post-intervention period such as we saw in the immediate wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. If the international community—with a special emphasis on the United States—bungles three efforts in a row it would be a tremendous setback for Libya’s beleaguered people and the world.

John Norris is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative.

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