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How the 'Humanitarian' Intervention in Libya Made Our World Infinitely More Dangerous

North Korea's lesson from Libya is that if you give up your WMD programs peacefully, you may have lost your best defense from invasion.

Coming 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.

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