Syria and the Pernicious Consequences of Our Libya Intervention

Even if toppling Qaddafi made sense on its own terms, the Western campaign will make it far harder to do any good for Syria.

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Hillary Clinton speaks to reporters at the United Nations during a Security Council meeting in Syria / AP

The intervention in Libya -- often touted by advocates as a sterling example of how to intervene responsibly in a civil conflict to prevent atrocity -- has largely fallen off the world's radar. Libya is often cited as a case supporting a possible intervention to prevent further atrocity in Syria, but the two are very different, and the comparison ignores what's happened in Libya since Qaddafi's fall.

The intervention in Libya is far from an assured success. Last week fighting broke out in Tripoli between rival militias bickering over a stretch of beach. Some of the many guns Qaddafi mustered to defend his regime have now found their way to Tuareg rebels in Mali, who are busy fomenting another insurgency there. And last month Medicins Sans Frontieres withdrew some of its staff after witnessing act of torture by some of the revolutionaries that the West had supported in ousting the old regime.

Intervention, in other words, has lots of consequences, and often they're quite bad. While it's relatively easy to talk about the problems the intervention has unleashed on Libya itself, even less remarked upon are the broader political consequences of the Libyan campaign. Russia and China, in particular, have openly said they're angry over how the intervention played out, and it should be no surprise to see them block future moves for intervention.

A big reason for Russia and China's intransigence is the NATO coalition that led the intervention, which badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention. Russia was an early critic of such actions as France's weapons shipments to the rebels -- criticism that could have been accounted for (Moscow never made any secret of its concerns) but which seemed to be ignored in the rush to intervene. President Obama made a rapid transition from saying "regime change is not on the table" last March (part of the bargain to get Russian abstention from the UNSC vote) to publicly calling for his ouster. France and the UK used similar language, ignoring the politics of getting UN approval for intervention.

Now, when there is another escalating crisis in Syria -- Bashar al-Assad's unjustifiable mass-murder of protesters --  Russia and China have stepped in to veto further UNSC action. This was an entirely predictable response, as both Russia and China were openly scornful of the misleading statements made by interventionists in NATO and the Arab League to get support for Libya.

The veto has led some analysts to say the UNSC is losing relevance, but it seems to me that the opposite might actually be true: the politics of the UNSC should matter as much for launching an intervention as the merits of actually attacking the target country. There is no doubt that what is unfolding in Syria is an atrocity that must end. Sadly, the Libya intervention itself, while a precedent for the idea of global action against a humanitarian threat, is also a very real reason that the world will have a tougher time doing anything for Syria.

Walter Russell Mead wrote an excellent exegesis of the entirety of Russia's calculations on the veto, taking special note of Russian domestic politics and their obsession with their own diminishment in international bodies like the UN. Put simply: Russia expected some consideration in the Libyan campaign, but instead the relevant players are actively working against Russian interests there, even post-Gaddafi. Moscow could not risk the same thing happening to its many interests in Syria.

Even if it were not an election year in Russia, where Putin has just been reminded that he does not enjoy uncritical love from his people, it's likely Russia would have vetoed Syria because of Libya. But there are additional, bigger politics to consider as well.

Many states, none of whom are free, worry that the West's renewed love of intervention might one day be focused upon them. This is a critical consequence of rejecting sovereignty and declaring governments unfit to rule through a mixture of expediency and opportunity. Powerful states with poor human rights records -- Russia and China included -- look at what happened in Libya and see disaster, not freedom. And they are taking steps to avoid it.

In a broader sense, too, the renewed focus on intervention, especially considering what happened in Libya, could have pernicious consequences. Qaddafi famously gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003. That he was later overthrown right after the U.S. re-established diplomatic ties with Triploi isn't broadly seen as a victory for diplomacy and denuclearization, but rather a textbook case of why nuclear weapons are fantastic invasion insurance. That may be one reason (among many others) why Iran seems so unwilling to contemplate abandoning its own nuclear weapons program -- it believes that nuclear weapons will prevent a capricious and unpredictable West from invading or intervening in its internal affairs.

In a vacuum, intervening to prevent mass killings in Libya made sense. Libya, however, did not (and does not) exist in a vacuum. It has both internal and regional politics. So does Syria. The failure to gain international buy-in to do something -- not necessarily militarily but some response -- to the atrocities there is a direct consequence of interventionists ignoring politics in their rush to do good. Unfortunately, the people of Syria are now paying the price, and will continue to do so.