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The Big Bill From Libya

Did Qaddafi die to save Assad and Ahmadinejad? It certainly looks like China and Russia regret allowing NATO to bomb Libya. Too much Western meddling in the Middle East has not made either of the two Security Council veto wielders happy. They will not repeat their mistake in Syria or Iran.

NATO intervened in Libya to stop a predicted but still hypothetical bloodbath and now can only wring its hands as a real slaughter continues in Syria. The Arab League  can’t endorse two western invasions of Arab countries in one year; the vote to oust Qaddafi was de facto a vote to let Assad stay in place.  The world protests the violence. Assad celebrates his  license to kill.

The humanitarian hawks in the White House didn’t intend to condemn thousands of Syrians to death, but that is what the intervention in Libya has done. The NATO intervention in Libya encouraged Syrians to hope that they, too would be rescued; but the actual consequence of the Libyan intervention was to make further interventions less likely. As in Hungary in 1956 and Iraq in 1991, America encouraged a revolt we were unwilling to sustain, leading many good people to their deaths by raising false hopes.  Roads to hell, good intentions: it is an old and familiar story.

Watching how NATO stretched what China and Russia thought was a narrowly worded resolution into the equivalent of a James Bond like 007 license to kill anything that moved across Libya both angered Russia and China and stiffened their resolve to stand by their friends.  The A-jad is benefiting as much as his Syrian ally.  The Libya campaign also appears to have muted the global response to Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA, in its latest report, used its strongest language by far in accusing Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

But, as the NYT reports, internationally coordinated options to target Iran’s nuclear program are limited. “Russia and China have made it clear they will not vote in the Security Council for any more sanctions, leaving any international effort divided from the start.” Additionally: “American allies like Japan and South Korea buy large amounts of oil from Iran, paying their bills through the central bank because most Iranian commercial banks are off limits.” There are no sanctions against Iran’s central bank for precisely this reason: companies in American-allied countries would not be able to do business in the States if they did business with a sanctioned Iranian institution.

Russia and China were never going to give the US a carte blanche on Iran at the Security Council, but over the years they have grudgingly allowed sanctions to tighten, and that stance supported the development of a coalition of other countries willing to take still more steps.  Now they have both reason to stiffen their opposition and global support from others in Africa and elsewhere who view NATO’s action in Libya as a threat.

The Great Loon has gone to his eternal reward, but a lot of good Syrians are dead and both Assad and A-jad are sleeping a little more easily.  The bloodbath in Syria is deeper than it would have been and war with Iran is more likely.

Foreign policy is hard; good intentions are not enough.  Nobody gets it perfectly right ever and statesmen almost always have to take big decisions without enough information.  But the Libyan intervention, successful as it was on its own terms, has not made things better in the Middle East as a whole.

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  • WigWag

    “NATO intervened in Libya to stop a predicted but still hypothetical bloodbath and now can only wring its hands as a real slaughter continues in Syria.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    It is true that NATO’s behavior in Libya has encouraged Russia and China to be more recalcitrant than ever at the United Nations. What I don’t understand is why this means that NATO and the United States can only wring their hands about Syria.

    Why exactly should we care what the United Nations thinks? The United States makes a terrible error if it allows the United Nations to determine American policy. I thought that the President and Congress were supposed to do that, not the UN Ambassadors of China and Russia.

    When Clinton decided to intervene in the Balkans (which I think was a mistake) after the Security Council refused to act (because Russia threatened a veto), the United States and its allies acted in spite of the UN.

    It’s time to put the UN in its place.

  • Luke Lea

    Preventing Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons is a unilateral issue if ever there was one. For Israel it is a vital one and, since she already has experience in this department (first Iraq, more recently Syria), I think the U.S. role should be limited to quietly supplying Israel with any tools she might need. In any case I find it implausible that this is not a doable project — Israel would never have let things progress beyond the point of no return — just as, and for the same reason, I find it implausible that Pakistan actually possesses nuclear weapons. That dog will bark, that dog will bite if necessary. Them Ashkenazis ain’t dumb.

  • Akwhite

    Syria is a nation of more than 20 million people, closer in scale to Iraq (32m) than to relatively small Libya with its 6 million. The notion that we could pull-off a soldier-free, Libya-style NATO intervention in Syria is not rational. Do you have any evidence that we have encouraged Syria’s people to revolt based on the assumption that we would support them with troops and warplanes? You’re not usually inclined to such fact-free pontification.

    Give the Syrians more credit than that. They are inspired by all their fellow Arabs. And spurred to act by the psychotic terror of their government. For anyone to expect the US to engage in yet another war nearly on the scale of Iraq – – sorry, that was out of the question long before the Libya intervention.

    I find your righteous superiority toward the White House a bit ridiculous here. They succeeded in Libya in a big way, give them credit, please.

  • John

    Well, maybe, but you’re not thinking on the margin: not intervening in Libya would have licensed Assad to carry on with his mayhem, too.

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