All necessary measures

The surprisingly successful counterattack by the Gaddafi forces in Libya has produced an even more surprising response. Whereas a day or so ago it seemed unlikely that the US, let alone the UNSC, would support a no-fly zone, the UNSC has now passed (10-0 with China among the abstentions) a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi’s forces. At least according to the NYTimes, that includes airstrikes directed at ground forces.

The only question now is who will supply the necessary force, and this is primarily a diplomatic issue – the military requirements are well within the capacity of France, the US, the UK, the Arab League and probably quite a few others. But whoever supplies the planes, it seems clear that Gaddafi’s regime is doomed. It is striking that, having been regarded as a member in good standing of the international community only a couple of months ago, he is now unable to secure a single vote in the UNSC.

The vote has big implications for the UN and also for the remaining Middle Eastern dictatorships/monarchies, most notably Bahrein and “Saudi” Arabia

As regards the UN, the speed and determination of the response to the Libyan revolution, first referring Gaddafi to the ICC and now authorising intervention marks a dramatic break with the past. Clearly, the idea of non-intervention in internal affairs of sovereign states is dead. Moreover, it’s now clear that dictatorships are effectively second-class members of the international community, open to overthrow with international support when the opportunity arises. That’s a big break with traditional Westphalian ideas.

On the other hand, the very fact that the UNSC can authorise effective intervention, will make it more difficult for the US and others to justify bypassing the UNSC and undertaking interventions on their own. I don’t imagine that will necessarily prevent US governments from trying, but they will find it harder to assemble informal coalitions or use NATO as a UN substitute.

The other big implications are for the kings of Bahrein and “Saudi” Arabia, whose decisions in the last few days to murder protestors and arrest opposition leaders, apparently emboldened by Gaddafi’s successes and the distracting effects of the Japanese disaster, now look spectacularly ill-timed. While the US and UK response so far has been limited to calls for “restraint”, these rulers have now put themselves in the same category as Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi.

Of course, that poses some big choices for the US Administration. Its traditional policy in the region is symbolised by the big naval base in Bahrein, and long-standing support for friendly dictators. The hope was to manage a smooth transition to a pro-democracy position, with the absolute monarchs becoming constitutional enough to pass muster. It’s hard to see that happening now.

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