On the Libya No-Fly Zone, Put the UN Security Council Front Forward

Debate continues inside the Obama administration — and on the front pages of The New York Times — over the merits and risks of a no-fly zone in Libya. The debate continues at the UN Security Council (UNSC) as well, where the United Kingdom and France have begun to draft a resolution calling for a no-fly operation. Opinion inside the Security Council is split.

Both domestic and international discussions are colored by one reality and one fear. The reality is that the United States will have to lead the no-fly operation, even if it has multilateral authorization and multinational implementation. That reality drives the fear: that the deployment of U.S. force tilts the balance in Libya and beyond, from genuine domestic revolts against authoritarianism to something colored by more than a touch of anti-Americanism.

How a no-fly operation happens makes a difference. I’m not referring to the military how, but the political how.

Too often in the past — and particularly on the Middle East — when the United States has come to the UN on questions of force, it has come in this mode: “We’ve decided to take the following step; and we invite you to vote in favor of it. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t, we’re going to do it anyway.” This is the essence of the much-vaunted multilateralism a la carte.  No surprise then that UN authorization for U.S. action is viewed internationally as a fig-leaf — as it often has been. This robs U.S. action of the broad political support that genuine international action can sometimes command.

This is not an abstract debate about global governance or the legitimacy of multilateralism. As applied to Libya, this is a question of hard-headed judgments about the risks of fueling anti-American sentiment in a region already impassioned. If some American policymakers are concerned about launching American power into yet another Arab conflict, they have reason to be. Tilting the balance between domestic uprising and anti-American sentiment in Libya can roil the wider region. But there’s a world of political difference between the United States and others responding to a genuine international call for action and a patina of international “legitimacy” over a pre-decided American course of action. 

Moreover, no region in the world is better at sniffing out the difference. Arab newspapers routinely carry detailed coverage of U.S. foreign policy positions, positions taken by various UN bodies, and the interaction between them. Much of this tilts to the conspiratorial, but it’s a fair bet that the average newspaper reader in Egypt knows more about the debate in the UN Security Council than the average American newspaper reader.

How does this translate into policy? Simply put, the United States should decide it is willing to enforce a no-fly zone with help, but it absolutely will not do it without UN Security Council authorization (preferably, also with Arab League support). The United States should assemble the capacity and move it into position, but resolutely refuse to act until there is a formal authorization from the UNSC. The first thing this would do is shift the narrative away from “the United States is looking for an excuse to intervene” to “why are the other Security Council members backing Qaddafi and blocking humane action?” If the full Council came around to endorsing action, no one could make a credible case that the United States had simply forced it through. 

Does this create a risk of no action? Yes, it does. If a majority of the UNSC believes that the risks of American-led action outweigh the humanitarian case, they will vote against the U.K/France draft resolution. That is their right. It is also their responsibility. The Security Council is not just a rubber stamp. It is a body whose central mandate is to “maintain international peace and security.”  That means everyone on the Council, not just the permanent members, and certainly not just the United States.

If the rest of the Council has credible options for handling the crisis short of a no-fly zone, let’s listen. As the debate inside the administration reflects, there are real costs and real risks of a no-fly zone.  Real alternatives should get a genuine hearing – but quickly.  What’s more, we should be clear. Even if it is successful, a no-fly zone only postpones the harder problem: finding a new settlement between an entrenched regime (even without Qaddafi) and its tribal and political opponents.  

There is a reasonable chance that the United States is in a classic “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” position here, and that anti-American sentiment will grow in the region no matter what the United States does in the coming days, weeks and months. But the use of U.S. military power without genuine international and regional support will tilt the odds rapidly. The stakes are high in Libya; but they are higher in the wider region.