It tells you everything you need to know about Barack Obama’s worldview that he sought authorization from the United Nations, and not from Congress, before launching military action in Libya. (The fact is, as commander in chief, he required neither.) But putting aside the president’s obeisance to an international body over one representing the American people, the U.N. resolution he secured could prove to be a disaster for the Libyan people and American national security.
The U.N. Security Council’s stated objective is “the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence.” This is entirely incompatible with President Obama’s stated objective of getting Moammar Gaddafi “to step down from power and leave.” If the violence ends, Gaddafi will not leave. To the contrary, if military intervention succeeds in achieving the United Nations’ goal of forcing a cease-fire on the warring parties, it will lock in the status quo on the ground. Two weeks ago, this would have left the rebels with control over large swaths of the country. But today, Gaddafi has regained most of the ground he lost to the resistance. The air campaign stopped him from driving the rebels from their last urban strongholds. But now the opposition holds Benghazi as the capital of a liberated enclave, protected by Western air power — much as Iraqi Kurdistan was during the decade before the fall of Saddam Hussein.
What next? Rebel forces, exulting in the military strikes against Gaddafi, have boasted they will march on Tripoli and bring down his regime. Will the United States and its allies provide air cover while the rebels push Gaddafi’s forces back and drive the Libyan dictator from his seat of power? No, says Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Mullen said “the goals of this campaign right now again are limited, and it isn’t about seeing him go. It’s about supporting the United Nations resolution, which talked to limiting or eliminating his ability to kill his own people, as well as support the humanitarian effort.” Host David Gregory pressed Mullen, asking: “So the mission can be accomplished, and Gaddafi can remain in power?” Mullen replied: “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome.”
If coalition forces succeed in enforcing the U.N. resolution, that outcome is all but assured. Once a cease-fire is in place, the terms set by the Security Council will have been met, and military action by either side would violate international law. This means that if the rebels attempt to remove Gaddafi by force, they could be the ones violating the mandate of the United Nations. The U.N. resolution could end up protecting Gaddafi and guaranteeing the survival of his regime.
The resolution also reaffirms the U.N. arms embargo, which most of the world interprets as barring the transfer of arms to both government and rebel forces. A week ago, then-State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declared the U.S. would consider any effort to arm the rebels “illegal.” But on Friday, the president referred to the resolution as “an arms embargo against the Qaddafi regime,” and his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, declared that “careful legal reading” doesn’t preclude arming the rebels. Unfortunately, some of our key allies don’t share this interpretation. A senior British official with direct knowledge told me his government’s position is that the arms embargo applies to both the Gaddafi regime and the resistance. And even if the Obama administration could convince other countries that the embargo does not bar military aid to the rebels, would the United States and its allies really provide weapons to the resistance so they could use them to violate a U.N.-mandated cease-fire?
When Obama issued his ultimatum to Gaddafi on Friday, the president demanded that the Libyan leader order his forces to stand down; to establish water, electricity and gas supplies to besieged cities; and to allow the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. That’s it. Gone was the declaratory policy Obama issued two weeks ago demanding that Gaddafi give up power. Indeed, Obama made explicitly clear that Gaddafi’s removal was not an objective of the military action he had ordered, declaring “we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.”
The best way to protect civilians in Libya is not to tie the rebels down with the Lilliputian threads of international law. It is to help them remove the brutal regime of Moammar Gaddafi from power.