Barack Obama’s public reluctance to point Hosni Mubarak toward the exit door pushed open by millions of disgusted Egyptians was defensible, if not exactly admirable: the U.S. did not wish to be seen peremptorily dumping so longstanding an ally, although the White House should have seen much earlier that there was no alternative. The president’s dithering over Libya has been neither defensible nor admirable. His electoral pitch made much of America’s “moral obligation” to intervene to prevent atrocities against civilians. Atrocities is a strong word: it does not describe the familiar travails of the subjects of unjust and corrupt rulers. But atrocities are happening in Libya. Obama’s declared principles in foreign affairs face a test he seems loath to recognize.
From the first lethal volleys against peaceful demonstrators, it was clear that Muammar Gaddafi would wage war to the death on his own people, a war that his “reformist” son Saif swore to fight “to the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet.” Obama duly declared that Gaddafi had “lost legitimacy” and must go; last week he assured the Libyan people that “we will stand with them in the face of unwarranted violence and the continuing suppression of democratic ideals.” Yet all week, as Gaddafi reduced Zawiyah to rubble and pounded Ras Lanuf, the White House resumed its leisurely consideration of “the full spectrum of possible responses.” NATO kicked its heels; the EU, as usual, met to decide on what it could not decide. Libyans bled.
Gaddafi, haggard and hysterical at the start of the uprising, has recovered his swagger. If the White House ever counted on him doing a runner, that became a nonstarter as early as Feb. 26, when the U.N. Security Council, in Resolution 1970, unanimously referred his regime to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity—crimes for which Obama insists the U.S. will hold Gaddafi and those around him to account. Even with communications cut and journalists in Tripoli under virtual house arrest, evidence of such crimes mounts. Wounded civilians have been barred from hospitals, or murdered inside them, or dragged bleeding from beds; soldiers, guns blazing, have spewed out of ambulances. Thousands have been abducted and tortured, even in the presence of a BBC team that was itself detained and badly beaten. Unarmed civilians—not only protesters but anyone seen upright—are hunted down and murdered.
Not one Libyan is surprised. Terror and torture have defined Gaddafi for most of his 42-year dictatorship. Nothing is too petty for his secret police; a senior official I knew well was jailed for three years because they found Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy in his bookshelves. He has now vanished. The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind of a monster like Gaddafi on one thing only: holding onto power by all and any means—even (if he has them, as he well may) using chemical weapons.
This is no civil war; that is another lie concocted by Gaddafi, whose brutality forced unarmed citizens to defend themselves. In Benghazi, people assert passionately that his overthrow is a cause that unites all Libyans. If Gaddafi is left, unimpeded, to pound an entire people into submission, the consequences will be devastating—for Libyans obviously, but also for Iranians, Syrians, and others whose rulers will conclude that it pays to be pitiless. The U.S. will command scant respect, come the next crisis, and the West will again be accused of not giving a damn about Muslim lives, which will hardly assist the containment of Islamist terrorism. The question is posed: is the back seat, in fact, where the White House wants to sit? Does Obama believe that the era of U.S. leadership should be seen to be over?
An answer must be given. The issue is not the narrow one of the legality or military effectiveness of a no-fly zone. It is what to do about an outlaw. Gaddafi is in breach of the U.N.’s demand, issued under Chapter VII of its charter, to end violence against his people and meet their “legitimate demands.” Compliance is obligatory. Words must be seen to mean what they say.
France has taken a lead, recognizing the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. Washington moans unconvincingly that it doesn’t know enough about the people struggling to give birth to a new Libya. Does it really fear they could be worse than Gaddafi? Much more could be done by resorting to an as-yet-untested doctrine, unanimously adopted by the United Nations in 2005 but unheard of outside the hermetic world of global diplomacy. It is called “the responsibility to protect”—inelegantly abbreviated to R2P—and it is a potential game changer.
R2P addresses a difficult, first-order question: when is coercion justified against a regime committing crimes against humanity, overriding the taboo against intervention in a state’s internal affairs even though its conduct does not evidently threaten international peace and security? R2P lays down that states have responsibilities to their people, and that if they will not abide by them, other states have interventionary responsibilities to “help” if a high threshold of human suffering is reached.
The importance of this doctrine, framed to prevent another Bosnia or Rwanda, is that it values human life above state sovereignty. Libya’s “responsibility to protect” its people was cited in Resolution 1970; if Russia or China vetoes further action, R2P is robust and specific enough to underpin a coalition of the willing. Washington insists on regional as well as European support. It has that, unexpectedly and overwhelmingly: from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and even the chronically passive Arab League. Apart from the African Union, where Gaddafi’s money talks louder than principle, all regional voices are speaking out. All want Gaddafi gone.
Sending in the Marines is not what anyone, including Libyans, wants, but Benghazi can be sent medicines, military equipment for “protective use” as foreseen in Resolution 1970, and other assistance. A no-fly zone might not in itself be decisive, particularly against helicopter gunships, although it is hardly as complex as Defense Secretary Robert Gates pretends. Airspace could be denied by using offshore long-range missiles, and signal-jamming could disrupt Gaddafi’s command-and-control systems. African governments can be told under R2P to halt Gaddafi’s recruitment of mercenaries, denying overflight and landing rights to all Libyan or Libyan-chartered aircraft. All these decisions could be made quickly.
The Obama administration sets huge store by international law—yet mostly cites international law as a reason that something cannot be done, rather than working to strengthen it as the humane modern expression of Hobbes’s “common power to keep men in awe.” Shoes are made for feet, not feet for shoes. And it’s a time for walking, not talking.
Righter, a columnist for The Times of London, is the author of Utopia Lost: The United Nations and World Order.