Libya and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Conn HallinanComing to terms with NATO’s intervention in the Libyan civil war is a little like wresting a grizzly bear: big, hairy, and likely to make one pretty uncomfortable no matter where you grab a hold of it. Is it a humanitarian endeavor? A grab for oil resources? Or an election ploy by French President Nicolas Sarkozy?

But regardless of the motivations — and there are many — the decision to attack Muammar Gaddafi’s regime has global consequences, some of them not exactly what NATO had in mind. Certainly, the Libyan intervention means we should forget the idea of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Moreover, a global push for wider adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) now seems crippled.

The humanitarian rationale was the one that brought the Arab League and the United Nations on board, although it is not entirely clear that such a humanitarian crisis existed. Gaddafi’s blood-curdling rhetoric not withstanding, there is no evidence of mass killings of civilians.

UN Resolution 1973 authorized member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populations under threat of attack,” while also “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form.” But the interpretation of the resolution depended on who was flying the bombers and launching the cruise missiles.

France targeted Gaddafi’s army. Britain tried taking out the “Great Leader” with a cruise missile strike. The United States smashed up the Libyan air force, and as to offing Gaddafi, that depended on with whom you talked. President Obama said he wanted him out, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that wasn’t the mission, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played coy.

Return of the Crusades?

On one level, Operation Odyssey Dawn was what one military analyst called “the attack of the Keystone Krusaders.” It took a week to figure out who was in charge, and cooperation wasn’t helped when French Interior Minister Claude Guéant labeled the attack a “crusade” — not a word that goes down well in the Middle East.

But beyond the snafu is whether Odyssey Dawn is consistent with the U.S. constitution and the UN charter, and what it means for the future.

According to the constitution, unless the United States, “its territories or possessions, or its armed forces” are attacked, only Congress can declare war. The Obama administration did not consult Congress, nor did it claim Libya had attacked it, thus bypassing both the constitution and the 1973 War Powers Act.

Responsibility to Protect

The UN charter forbids countries from going to war except in response to an attack by another country. However, in 2005 the UN World Summit in New York endorsed a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) policy that says member states have a responsibility to protect people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity. R2P was a response to the 1994 massacre of some 800,000 people in Rwanda.

R2P, however, requires that member states first “seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial arrangement…or other peaceful means of their own choice.”

But there was no effort to negotiate anything before the French started bombing Gaddafi’s forces. Thus in strictly legal terms, UN Resolution 1973 is a little shaky. There is no question Gaddafi’s troops were killing civilians, but no one has suggested that it reached a level of genocide. One can, however, make a case the killings constituted crimes against humanity. The problem is that you could make the same case against Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-09 as well as the current crackdown against democracy advocates in Syria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, not to mention the 2009 massacre of some 20,000 Tamils in the last weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war.

“The contradictions between principle and national interest,” says Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia, “have enabled the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, ostensibly to protect innocent civilians from slaughter, but to watch seemingly helplessly [in Ivory Coast] as…men, women and children are slaughtered in equally, even if less egregious, violence.”

The French Connection

There is no question that some supported the intervention for genuinely humanitarian reasons. A brutal thug like Gaddafi is certainly capable of killing a lot of people. But there were lots of irons in this fire.

“Sarkozy likes nothing better than a crisis, a fight and a gamble,” wrote Financial Times columnist Peggy Hollinger. “With his approval ratings at an all-time low, this [Libyan intervention] could be just what he needs to revive his faltering popularity at home.” However, in spite of France’s leading role in the attack, Sarkozy’s party took a shellacking in local elections on March 28.

For the United States, Odyssey Dawn was a coming out party for its Africa Command (AFRICOM). It is no accident that Washington has created a regional military command at the very moment African oil reserves are becoming a major source of crude for the United States. By 2013, African oil production is projected to rise to 11 million barrels of oil a day, and to 14.5 million barrels by 2018. Oil from the Gulf of Guinea will make up more than 25 percent of U.S. imports by 2015.

Oil and Arms

Control of energy resources is always central to U.S. strategy, especially as world reserves continue their inexorable decline. Washington is currently competing with China for oil resources, and though the United States does not use much Libyan oil, its NATO allies do.

A major reason the Obama administration supports Bahrain’s monarchy is because the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based there to control the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea — areas that hold the bulk of the world’s oil reserves.

China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and consumes 73 percent of the continent’s oil exports, with the bulk of their purchases from Sudan and Angola. Between AFRICOM and the Fifth Fleet, the United States keeps a close watch on five out of the six main petroleum suppliers to China: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman, Sudan, and Angola.

The Fog of War

War always has consequences, although not all of them are initially obvious. In war, as Carl von Clausewitz noted, the only thing you can determine is who fires the first shot. After that it is all fog and plans gone awry.

But some consequences are clear. An unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry official told Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency that, “The Libyan crisis” was “teaching the international community a grave lesson…the truth that one should have power to defend peace.”

The official went on to suggest that the West had duped Libya into disarming its nuclear program in 2003 and then attacked it when it could no longer defend itself.

North Korea may be erratic, but there are many other quite sober countries that might draw similar conclusions. While most countries of the world adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear powers — three of whom, Britain, France, and the United States, are currently bombing Libya — have yet to fulfill their obligations under Article VI to eliminate their arsenals and begin negotiations on general disarmament.

Until that happens, the temptation for many countries will be to obtain a weapon that can level the playing field, particularly when some of their adversaries are so quick to resort to military power.

That is a world that will be infinitely more dangerous than the one in which we currently live.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. He also writes the blog Dispatches from the Edge.