March 17th , 2011 will enter the history books as the date when the Security Council approved resolution 1973 calling for the enforcement of a no "fly zone in Libya" including the authorization of " all necessary measures to protect civilians". Since this is only the third time in history that the UN has approved a resolution authorizing collective force against a sovereign nation, it is crucial to investigate why and how this occurred. Despite the second clause of the resolution, no one should make the mistake of thinking the main interest of the countries involved is to protect the lives of Libyans. An International uproar over Qaddafi’s actions provided the leaders of the US, France and UK the perfect platform to pursue their domestic political interests by executing a low risk, limited military operation.
For President Obama, engaging in a limited military operation is the exact foreign policy he needed to strengthen his internal political stand following his loss at midterm elections last November. With a Republican majority in the Congress, Obama faces a domestic gridlock that does not allow him to pursue any meaningful domestic legislation that follows his Liberal agenda. The fear among the Obama camp is that not being able to perform domestically; he might lose public support and consequently the 2012 elections. To avoid such a scenario Obama can either change his agenda or gain political credit by appearing stronger in the international arena – a tactic that was used by other American Presidents in the past. Ronald Reagan experienced a similar reversal in his midterm elections and as a response he adopted a more aggressive anti-Soviet foreign policy approach which helped him win the 1984 elections. Although some conservatives criticize Obama for not taking the leadership role in the international effort, Obama is aware that such a role would hold greater political risks than benefits. American leadership in this war would entail greater risk for the lives of American soldiers and most likely result in the alienation of some of America’s closest allies. Therefore, the central but not leading role adopted by the US is the right step for Obama to achieve his domestic political needs.
French President Sarkozy faces even a greater risk, than Obama, to his political future in the upcoming elections in France. According to a survey conducted earlier this month by Le Parisien newspaper, Sarkozy is expected to receive only 21% of votes in the first round of the elections while Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right party, is predicted to garner23% of the votes. By announcing the launch of an international attack on Libya and having French jets be the first to attack Libyan targets, Sarkozy might have satisfied the apparent French voters' rightward trend and gained more support among French Muslims. Moreover, by taking a leading role in the attacks, Sarkozy has increased France's international standing and created the possibility of reviving his Euro-Mediterranean initiative in the aftermath of the Libyan attacks.
The Libyan endeavor could also be the savior of British foreign policy and revive the political career of British foreign minister William Hague. Hague is in desperate need of positive public relations following several embarrassing scandals. When events in Libya started to unfold, Hague ordered a poorly executed mission to evacuate British citizens from Libya and authorized a covert operation to send diplomats and SAS agents in a mission to make contact with rebels in eastern Libya. The unannounced arrival alarmed Qaddafi's opponents and the agents were taken hostage and almost killed. Adding to that, Hague was recently involved in a domestic scandal after defending a British diplomat linked to an American convicted sex offender. To save his reputation and political future, it was imperative for Hague to present a strong British foreign policy by supporting resolution 1973 and taking a leading role in the military operation.
Russia and China chose to abstain from the vote. However they did not veto the resolution as they had done for other past "pro western" UN resolutions. It is highly likely that the rapprochement process between Russia and the US which includes cooperation on missile defense program, Russia's acceptance to the WTO and a surprising proposal by Putin to cancel mutual visa requirements between both countries, helped persuade Russian diplomats to not veto the decision. Similarly, China which follows a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries did not veto the resolution in this instance. Most likely China did not want to suffer the diplomatic repercussions that would come from being the one country that vetoed the resolution.
Qaddafi's ruthless attacks on his own people created a unanimous international condemnation that strangely placed the US and Al Qaeda on the same side. Global popular outcry for a military strike against Qaddafi's forces required a response from world leaders who saw this as an opportunity to promote domestic political interests in a low risk operation. Libya is considered to be an easy target because its military is ill equipped and the country is located on the shores of the Mediterranean- close to the American 6th fleet and to Italian air bases. Thus, resolution 1973 passed because there was a linkage between national and international interests that came at the right time and the right place. The current inconsistencies among the allies as to the objective, length and command of the military operation indicate that the decision was made mainly to satisfy national interests rather than to pursue a common global peaceful cause.
Nonetheless, facts on the ground demonstrate that a forceful international coalition has so far managed to execute a large scale joint military operation which received the approval of the world’s most acceptable form of global governance institution. This stands as a warning to the leaders of Yemen, Syria and Iran who stand accountable for their acts in front of the international community. They might turn out to be the next target if national and international interests intertwine once more.