"When a leader's only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now." The White House issued this written statement five days after Qaddafi had turned in violence on his own people who were protesting unarmed in the street. Nearly three weeks after the first day that Qaddafi had lost legitimacy, President Obama tried to raise the pressure on the Libyan dictator further by talking about “a range of potential options, including potential military options." Yet by then the politics of such intervention were getting more complicated by the day, according to The New York Times. The paper reported that critics were contending that the White House was too much concerned about perceptions, and that the administration was too squeamish on the military options on account of the preceding administration's invasion of Iraq based on a claim of danger to the United States from Saddam's access to WMD. Even the critics acknowledged that the best outcome militarily would be for the United States to join other nations or international organizations rather than go it alone. About a week after the president's hint of military options, the E.U. decided not to impose a No Fly Zone. A few days later, the Arab League, which, according to The Hoffington Post, had already barred Libya's government from taking part in League meetings, issued a statement that Qaddafi's government had "lost its sovereignty." The League decided to establish contacts with the rebels' interim government, the National Libyan Council, and to call on the Security Council of the U.N. to impose a No Fly Zone on Libya. In a statement, the Arab League asked the "United Nations to shoulder its responsibility ... to impose a no-fly zone over the movement of Libyan military planes and to create safe zones in the places vulnerable to airstrikes." It would not be until March 18th, nearly a month after Qaddafi had first had weapons used against the protesters, that the Security Council would act. According to The New York Times, "After days of often acrimonious debate, played out against a desperate clock, as Colonel Qaddafi’s troops advanced to within 100 miles of the rebel capital of Benghazi, Libya, the Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, diplomatic code words calling for military action." Within days, according to The New York Times, "American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of . . . Qaddafi, unleashing warplanes and missiles in the first round of the largest international military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq."
It is tempting to focus on weighing the pros and cons of the military engagement, including how it came to be decided (It took too long), whether the genuine motive was oil or human rights (I suspect oil), and whether we were being consistent, given abuses against protesters going on in Bahrain and Yemen at the time (We were not, and this points back to the motive being to stop or reverse the gas price increase caused by speculators overstating the supply-impact of political instability--see my essay criticizing corporate political risk analysis and its self-fulfilling prophesy). To be sure, I weave these matters in my analysis, even if merely implicitly in some of their aspects. However, I prefer to bring out dynamics that might otherwise be overlooked by tracking events on the ground. I approach the Libyan case as a learning opportunity that can be placed in a larger framework oriented to the long-term. Hoping for a progression in the way the human race organizes itself, I look at ways in which international organizations can be reformed and principled leadership involved to protect and defend citizens' human right to life against encroachments by their own governments. As a backdrop to my argument, I submit that the matter of whether or not to engage in a military intervention can be thought of in terms of a window of opportunity with respect to human rights. After discussing this matter, I turn to the matters of international organization reform and principled leadership geared to human rights. While this essay is long, I beg the reader's indulgence in my attempt to proffer a substantive treatment of the subject. My aim is not limited to agreement; I hope my thoughts and reasoning, and even the values I presume therein, stimulate (or provoke) the reader to greater thought and proposals than I can muster.
"This is a window of opportunity for the United States," Zahi Mogherbi, an adviser to the Libyan rebels' interim government, had said weeks before the Security Council's vote. The most basic shift that had occurred in the three weeks between Obama's two statements was from a government turning on its own people to a military divided between being loyal to Qaddafi and supporting of the rebels. Even though the eventual international fire power is not without merit in protecting Libyan civilians, I contend that it is far easier to justify external military intervention against a government that has turned on its own unarmed people because such a basic betrayal involves a complete loss of legitimacy to rule, as the Obama administration noted in its statement five days after Qaddafi's decision to kill protesters. By the time the conflict had become one between armed rebels and the military loyal to Qaddafi--that is, what the West was calling a civil war--the window to boldly declare with military force that the Libyan government would not be allowed to turn on its own (unarmed) people--had passed. The protesters had been replaced by rebels. Even if successful external military intervention was still possible, the human rights justification had weakened because a government is on firmer ground in fighting armed rebels. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. To be sure, Qaddafi's forces were killing unarmed civilians "without mercy," according to the tyrant himself; the human rights element had not dissolved even if it was extant with contests taking place on the field of military battle. Even so, just five days after the government of Qaddafi had turned on the people it was to protect, the claim that Qaddafi had lost the right to rule was being overlaid by the observation that Libya was entering a civil war with two armed camps. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango (though dancing alone or in a group seems to be the rule in techno music nightclubs). The transition from a human rights violation to the more ordinary civil war can occur in days in a fast-moving situation on the ground. Referring to the window that was rapidly closing for military intervention, Zahi Mogherbi observed of the U.S. Government, "They are not taking it or they are taking their time."
Even if military action being delayed a month so diplomatic channels could result in a U.N. resolution could ultimately facilitate or bring about Qaddafi's downfall (hence such action is worthy of support), President Obama missed the window of opportunity in which he could have claimed to be stopping Qaddafi from violently turning on his own people rather than from winning a civil war by going after civilians and rebels in rebel areas. Talking to reporters on March 19th, the first day of the U.S. involvement in the action, Obama said, "we can’t stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy.” But the president did stand idly by, for roughly a month since Qaddafi's violence on February 21st.
Both the idiosyncratic and bureaucratic features of the diplomatic route that the U.S. and E.U. choose to take point to the need for a new international mechanism if the world wants to protect and defend--in real rather than diplomatic time--the human right of civilians to life when their own respective governments are acting to sever that right. Absent such an expedited mechanism, principled leadership by individual rulers with significant military force are obligated by a universal duty of conscience to fill the gap rather than wait on diplomats to make deals. The basis of such leadership would not be a self-serving desire to be the world's police or to protect some vital resource such as oil; rather, the operative principle would be what David Hume calls the sentiment of moral disapprobation, which all non-sociopath human beings feel at the sight of unjust harm. I begin with the institutional reform argument, after which I discuss the naturalistic basis of principled leadership.
Governments siding with rebels against a ruler the other rulers don't like is far more familiar in international diplomacy, and thus readily routinized, than is standing on principle with teeth. It is thus no wonder that the politics became more complicated by the day as Obama consulted with allies before the Security Council's vote. In short, the American president had missed the window when a non-routine idiosycratic decision to stop Qaddafi's violence against the protesters could have been taken in the realm of human rights rather than stopping a civil war. Obama rather quickly faced institutional and diplomatic hurdles involving other countries and international organizations. It could have been predicted, for example, that Hilary Clinton's statement that the matter must be decided by the U.N. would meet with Russia's apparent refusal to go along with even a no fly zone--that is to say, with paralysis until a deal could be made. Such is the nature of routine international relations: both the U.S. and Russia evinced the rigidity and absolutism (my way or the highway) of international diplomacy that eventuates the need for one government to pay off another. In the case involving Libya, the rise in oil prices was undoubtly in the mix motivating a deal; such an inducement, and indeed economic incentives in general, cannot necessarily be relied on to close such deals. Therefore, even if it is successful in particular cases, international diplomacy leading to a Security Council affirmative (i.e., non-vetoed) vote cannot be relied upon even for eventual action. it is certainly not set up to act on the expedited basis that is required to arrest human rights violations in real time. In short, the world needs another mechanism.
Lest it be thought that the Arab League could be consistently relied on to de-recognize a member government's right to sovereignty, the League's decision against Qaddafi in particular was informed by the particular circumstances at the time. According to The Hoffington Post, "Amr el-Shobaki, an Egyptian political analyst, said the decision reflects the upheaval in the Arab world, which also includes serious unrest in Bahrain and Yemen as well as rumblings of anti-government dissent in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq. . . . El-Shobaki also said Gadhafi has few real friends among Arab leaders – he has publicly clashed with and insulted many of them, including at Arab League summits." Rather than showing itself as a check on governmental abuse in the Middle East that the world could rely on, the League evinced concern for its members' internal political stability and dislike for a particular ruler. To the extent that the Arab League's request was requisite for the Security Council's vote oking military intervention, not to mention it just being debated, the entire chain of international diplomacy in this case can be seen as highly particular to this case, and therefore not necessarily to be triggered the next time a dictator turns against his or her people.
Therefore, lest mankind be left to the trepidations of indecision at the expense of arresting human rights violations in real time and to the self-interests of rulers as governments around the world and their international organizations hinge on the contingencies particular to the cases, I contend that either a permanent mechanism that involves a transfer of some governmental sovereignty beyond the nation state be designed and instituted, and, in the meantime, that some courageous ruler establishes the precedent of principled leadership to stop an abusive ruler in the act (or at least to divert his attention). While principled leadership would be an advance, it would only be of temporary utility, as leadership is not as long-standing as are institutions. With an accompanying transfer of sufficient governmental sovereignty (while designing a check to prevent abuse), an international institution can act in a timely manner befitting the timeline of human rights violations.
Going through the U.N. as it was initially designed cannot be relied up to stop or mitigate the violation of human rights by rulers unless some governmental sovereignty is transferred to the Security Council (e.g., no vetos). As discussed above, the existence of vetos translates into the need for governments to be essentially paid off, and such deals and the economic constallations conducive to them cannot be relied upon on a consistent basis because they are idiosycratic to the parties of the deals and the particular geo-political and economic context (as well as the particular villain). The combination of the vetos in the Security Council and the sheer diversity of opinion that one can expect in body representing over two hundred countries around the world--specifically, the diverse views on the nature and extent of national sovereignty--make it virtually impossible for the U.N. to proffer effective responses with teeth in real time. In dealing with Qaddafi, it took the Security Council about a month, and who knows but the governments themselves what China and Russia got in exchange for their abstentions.
As an alternative or co-reform, NATO could be reformed in its governance such that an expedited procedure could be devised to assess and possibly respond to a human rights violation by a ruler inside or out of NATO. While weighing the options on Libya, President Obama indicated that bureaucrats at NATO headquarters were weighing the options of the alliance attempting a joint military involvement, but NATO decisions take place in the allies' respective capitols rather than by bureaucrats at NATO. This arrangement of power in the alliance inexorably makes for slow decision-making, even when a window of opportunity is brief. Because the diversity of opinion is likely to be less among NATO members than at the UN Security Council because NATO is on a smaller scale, that alliance is the more suitable agent to gear any military response to a government "gone rogue." For this to be possible, some governmental sovereignty must shift to the alliance so a council or office holder standing for the entire alliance can make a timely decision. Just as an external military intervention itself implies that national sovereignty (e.g., of Libya) is not absolute, the same qualification must needs be applied to NATO for it to serve as a viable stand-in for the world in "just saying no" to continued governmental betrayal.
Given the staying power of the absolutist interpretation of national sovereignty, principled leadership might be the best the world could hope in the meantime. For example, the U.S. President or E.U. leaders could boldly make a stand against a government turning against its own people and intervene unilaterally or in a joint U.S./E.U. mission. Each of these unions is empire-scale, and thus would carry a lot of weight in standing on principle not just by saying that a ruler is no long legitimate, but also actively stopping him or her in real time. To be sure, to the rest of the world there would be more credibility involved when such an intervention is not limited to one region or two unions. In the Libyan case, the U.S. was indecisive from the outset and the E.U. was too divided and state rights' oriented.
Governors of countries can discern the need to act quickly to respond in real time before a window closes from when an issue should be turned over to diplomatic channels. I suspect that the people of the world have come to the conclusion that the doctrine of the absolute right of national sovereignty is antiquated because it is incompatible not only with there being boundaries to legitimate rule, but also with the defense of human rights from across a political border. That is to say, the absolutism is incompatible with the interconnected world's growing demand that human rights be respected even by those in power. Hence it should be no surprise that the world was dismayed by the shuffling by the Obama administration and the leaders of the E.U. while a dictator was on his own people. Had the E.U. (or some of its state governments) and/or the U.S. exercised force based on principled leadership before the window of opportunity had closed, the world would have crossed a threshold through the establishment of a new precedent. Governments abusing their own citizens will have been put on notice rather than enabled like alcoholics by ineptitude and indecision until a possible Security Council resolution could be passed. A coalition of the willing is likely to naturally form in little time after a principled leader has taken a stand in action and not just word. Such a leader would not be delayed from endless debate on his or her country's best strategic interest; rather, he or she would act on principle.
Although nearly a month after Qaddafi first turned on his compatriot protesters, Sarkozy expressed a principled basis for the external military intervention that had begun that day (albeit having waited for the Security Council's action a few days before). Referring to the "murderous madness" of a regime that has "forfeited all its legitimacy," Sarkozy justified the involvement of his airforce fighters as he spoke "in the name of the universal conscience that will not endorse such crimes." A universal conscience is rooted in human nature; such a basis is not conditional on a U.N. resolution. From his state capitol in the fractured E.U., Sarkozy made a principled declaration that resounded like a shot heard round the world--carried almost instantaneously as though by reflex by a mass of humanity "tweeting" through the ether. He asserted that it is our duty to respond to the anguished appeal of civilians.
From NYT, March 20, 2011
What Sarkozy neglected to say, however, was that the appeals had begun roughly a month earlier when Qaddafi's henchmen began shooting down funeral mouners in the streets of Tripoli. To be sure, Libyan protesters-turned-rebels who would have been subject to Qaddafi's "no mercy" were surely saying, "better late than never," as they stood on the dictator's ruined tanks after the first bombing campaign of the international coalition. Even so, a bystander could certainly be pardoned for surmising that the duty to respond without standing idly by had been triggered in America and Europe by a desire to lower gas prices or even to keep them from going still higher than they had in the previous two or three weeks--a consumer-driven political response, in other words. A fundamental moral duty, meaning an obligation to act, that comes from "the universal conscience" of human beings, does not 'click in" as soon as political self-interest chimes in. The window for such a duty as the primary and genuine motive closes as time and selfish considerations are allowed to intercede and the immediacy of the felt-conscience fades. To grasp this point, it is necessary to discuss the nature of the duty's basis in human nature.
The duty, being as universal as is conscience (i.e., excluding socio-paths and Yankee fans), is sourced in a naturally-felt psychological sentiment of misapprobation, which David Hume argued constitutes moral judgement itself. This sentiment is naturally felt in watching or learning of unjust harm, such as from a governor of a country turning against his own unarmed people by wantonly having them killed simply for protesting. Of course, while still active in the case of civilians, this feeling/principle is mitigated when it is armed rebels who are being killed--hence the window of opportunity for a human rights-based principled leadership. It is natural for any human being to be filled with utter disgust at the squalid sight of innocent civilians being shot by government troops. So it is also natural for a person to want to step in and stop the atrocious harm at once. The natural propensity of compassion manifesting in instantaneous word and deed is also evinced in a person who pulls a rapist off a young woman on a city street while people passing watch while quietly conferring with each other on what, if anything, they can or should do before they continue on with their plans. Such bystanders, unfortunately all too common in the world, are mere epigones in the human race; they are hardly natural leaders even if they have gained the power of political office by having woven words of saccarine silk. The person taking it upon himself to pull the rapist off the defenseless victim, on the other hand, is a natural leader in touch with his own humanity; he is thus able to act with humanity. He is not presuming to be his own police force for the city; rather, such a person is instantiating the highest that humanity has to offer: caritas naturalis, seu benevolentia universalis (natural higher human love raised high rather than remaining low in lust for power, money, or sex; that is, love as universal benevolence).
In conclusion, were the world not so focused on Qaddafi during his escapades, we might have used the ferociousness of his violence against civilians to evaluate not only the way other rulers reacted (or failed to react), but also what institutional reforms could have expedited the process befitting the nature of human rights violations and how principled leadership could override political expediency and bureaucratic meandering, even if only in theory yet. To be sure, principled leadership is contingent and short-lived, given the nature of leadership itself. For this reason, even in the event of such leadership manifesting and establishing a precedent, the world would be well advised to continue to work toward an international institutional mechanism that has some real teeth in protecting unarmed citizens from their own rulers. Even in the excitment over the Security Council's sanctioning of "all necessary means" to protect Libyan civilians, the world would be wise to ask: how could the process have been better from the standpoint of defending human rights? The key to the institutional reform, the world would realize, is the same as the rationale for removing a sitting governor: the qualification of national sovereignty from the absolutism advocated by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, respectively. For these two thinkers, only God's law can restrain the power of a human sovereign, and then most probably in the ruler's afterlife. According to Hobbes, for example, the human sovereign--the Leviathan, or king of the proud--has the exclusive right within his kingdom to interpret divine law (even such authority was thought by Hobbes necessary to avert civil war in the contentious seventeenth century in Britain). In any case, political theory in the twenty-first century need not be held hostage by an antiquated theory devised in and for a very different context and distant time. Technology alone has made the world much more interdependent, and thus in need of stronger international agency, albeit with adequate checks and balances to prevent abuse of the added authority.
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Jim Michaels, "Is Libyan 'Window of Opportunity' Closing?," USA Today, March 10, 2011, p. 6A.