In March of 2011 and just hours before the United Nations Security Council vote, Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi promised citizens of Benghazi--his own countrymen--that he was "coming tonight" and that would show them "no mercy and no pity." Gaddafi's brazen statement telegraphed an impending attack with a high possibility massive civilian casualties.
In the Security Council immediately following Gaddafi's threats, Russia and China--two permanent members with noted authoritarian governments themselves--abstained from voting on resolution 1973, which authorized "all necessary measures to protect civilians... including Benghazi." (Germany, Brazil, and India, then-rotating members of the Security Council, abstained as well for their own reasons.)
In hindsight, Russia seems to have regretted its abstention. In January 2012, speaking about the growing civil war in Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Australian TV that "the international community unfortunately did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorize anything similar to what happened in Libya" in Syria.
That seems odd, because "what happened in Libya" was, on balance, a good thing: A sustained NATO air campaign unquestionably protected many more innocent civilians than it harmed and weakened Gaddafi's forces en route to his downfall. What's more, the Libya operation served as validation for those supporting the "responsibility to protect," a 2006 Security Council mandate that called on parties involved in armed conflict to bear primary responsibility to protect civilians, approved by a unanimous 15-0 vote.
NATO's mission in Libya seems to have fundamentally changed Moscow's calculus. Russia's firm opposition to any resolution authorizing military action against its client-state derailed American, French, and British hopes of a "legal" intervention. Russian President Vladimir Putin went a step farther, pointing out the illegality of military action without a UN mandate:
Under international law the only body that can authorize using weapons against a sovereign state is the UN Security Council. Any other reasons and methods to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state are unacceptable and they can be seen as nothing but aggression.
This is, of course, a rich statement from the man who invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008 with 9,000 troops and 350 tanks and nary a Security Council vote in sight. But if Putin's calculation is that standing for the sanctity of the Security Council is the best way to protect Russia against anything hinting of intervention, it's clearly his best trump card.
In other words, when it comes humanitarian, good governance, freedom and safety issues, it's time to admit something: The United Nations Security Council is now officially broken.
President Barack Obama knows this, of course, too. And that's a problem, because the president is a believer in "legitimate" international action. The Libya operation's UN mandate was supplemented by resolutions sanctioning action from the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. To Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, this looked like "leading from behind," but could also be called "winning international legitimacy for a potentially contentious military intervention," or what John Kerry infamously referred to in a 2004 presidential debate against George Bush, "passing the global test"... a phrase Bush immediately turned it into a political attack.
The president clearly stands in this progressive internationalist tradition.
Since Obama can't get legal mandate from Turtle Bay, he needs another body to confer legitimacy on a Syria strike. Legally, it's a step he does not need to take, as the War Powers Act of 1973 gives the president authority to conduct "limited" military operations overseas without the Hill's approval. But from a legitimacy standpoint, the approval of the United States' legislature gives him cover.