The British government was previously criticised for its shaky response to the Libyan crisis, and with a good deal of cause given blunders over the evacuation of British citizens, and some rather mixed messages in the region more generally. But the British and French have shown that they can have an influential and, in this case, decisive role at the United Nations given how ambivalent the US administration has been over what, if any, further international response was demanded by the unfolding crisis in Libya.
So Cameron deserves tripartisan support for the British government's broad approach and I expect that he can broadly expect to receive it. There are certainly some pessimistic realist voices, particularly on the Conservative right (continuing an ages old debate, as Brendan Simms anatomises), and there will be a section of opinion around Tony Benn on the left and of broadly pacifist instincts who are worred about perceptions of 'western imperialism'. But the broad centre around the Responsbility to Protect ought to have a wide range across the spectrum on this occasion.
That will include a strong proportion of those on the liberal left who opposed the Iraq war, but who will rightly see this case - with an imminent crisis rather than a pre-emptive claim, two clear Security Council resolutions to authorise action, and backing from regional powers such as the Arab League - as having quite distinct features, which need to be judged on their own merits. Those are the reasons why much Liberal Democrat opinion will also be instinctively supportive of the government's position, whether they were in the Coalition government or not.
Despite the possibility of a broad consensus, the UN decision means accepting many risks. The diplomatic response may well have come too late. The moving response in the streets of Benghazi to the UN decision could simply prove a prelude to tragedy: the celebrations of those who hoped to be assisted by an international community which is rather anxious about whether it can in fact practically assist.
There are important questions about whether a no fly zone will prove effective against Libyan resistance, and whether it will prove insufficient as the dictatorship moves to suppress an uprising by other means. If it does not work, there will be no shortage of Monday night quarterbacks to point out why it was folly to think that it ever could.
Nor should anybody have any relish about the prospect of military action. Yet the alternative to the UN resolution would be an acceptance that governments can kill their own citizens with impunity - with barely even a word of protest, still less any effort to prevent this - whatever the cost to human rights, and to broader regional peace and security.
That this effort to protect in Libya now has the multilateral legitimacy of UN authorisation ought also to weigh with critics or sceptics of the decision. There is certainly an arbitrary element to viewing the ethical standing of a course of action as depending on whether China and Russia can be persuaded not to veto it, but these may well, for now, be necessary tensions for those who want the international community to commit to effective action to prevent atrocities while also developing and deepening the transition to a rule-based system of international law. (Next Left has previously discussed the importance of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, as a principle that can and should connect human rights, sovereignty and its limits, and multilateral legitimacy, as well as the frustrations of the current institutions of international diplomacy)
If Gaddafi were to succeed in restoring his de facto power, it will be important to be clear that control of a territory by brute force no longer confers international legitimacy and status: an important emerging distinction in international politics.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has been among the architects and champions of the Responsbility to Protect principle. He has been arguing that a UN response to the Libyan crisis would mark an important threshold for establishing this core principle. As Evans puts it, "sovereignty is not a licence to kill". The question now is whether this can be upheld in Libya in practice, and not only in theory.
The breakdown of the Security Council vote is interesting.
Given the reasons behind their positions on sovereignty over human rights, it is interesting that both China and Russia recognise the potential diplomatic costs and reputational risks to vetoing such a resolution - choosing instead to lay down their vetoes and abstain. Reuters reports that the Chinese foreign ministry has cited Arab League and African support for the resolution as decisive.
In view of the concerns and stance of the Arab countries and African Union and the special circumstances that currently apply in Libya, China and other countries abstained, and did not block the passing of the resolution," said Jiang.
U.N. diplomats said they understood the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were among Arab League members prepared to take part in enforcing the no-fly zone.
But it is also disappointing that Germany joins India and Brazil among temporary Security Council members in abstaining.
It is novel for the division in the EU to be about agreement between Britain and France, but dissent from Germany.
Guio Westerwelle, the beleaguered leader of the liberal junior coalition party, is facing increasing pressure over his lacklustre performance in the role, as The Guardian reports today.
Opposition Social Democrats have noted that Westerwelle's objections to the resolution are not coherent, as The New York Times reports:
The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said that a military intervention was no solution. “Germany is not prepared to be dragged into a civil war,” he said in interviews.
It was unclear which countries would enforce the no-flight zone, how it would work and which countries were prepared to send forces to Libya, he said. “I can see no German troops in Libya.”
Gernot Erler, a foreign policy expert and the deputy parliamentary leader of the opposition Social Democrats, said the government’s decision to side with Russia and China in opposing the no-flight zone would isolate Germany. He said support for a no-flight zone did not automatically mean sending ground troops.
While the ambivalence of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle does reflect the German Federal Republic's history and focus on a peaceful role, the decision to support and participate in NATO action over Kosovo showed that this did not necessitate abstention.
And it was certainly possible to back the resolution without deploying "German troops in Libya".
Australia has championed a no fly zone, while being clear that it would not participate militarily, while Canada and Norway are among those preparing to participate, alongside Britain, France, the United States and Arab states.
Whatever the pros and cons of the German government's stance, all German democrats on different sides of the argument will surely find Gaddafi's response offensive.
Again, from the New York Times:
The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, praised Germany. He told RTL, the German commercial television channel, Tuesday that “Germany was the only one with a chance of doing business in Libyan oil in the future.”
The Germans, he said, “have taken a very good position toward us, very different than many other important countries in the West.” Along with Germany, “our oil contracts are going to Russian, Chinese and Indian firms, the West is to be forgotten,” Colonel Qaddafi said.
The Libyan leader said President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was “his friend,” but was “suffering from mental illness.”
While respecting reasons for doubts over the no fly zone proposal, it would be good to hear the German government immediately vocally reject this overture.
Meanwhile, the French Presidency denies Libyan claims that the Gaddafi regime funded the Sarkozy election campaign. In any event, it is good to be able to decisively mark the end of that beautiful friendship.