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February 07, 2012 9:05 AM How Libya Did and Did Not Affect the Security Council Vote on Syria

By Erik Voeten

The chorus of commentators who argue that Libya set a precedent that doomed UN Security Council action on Syria appears to be growing. Here is Steve Walt in Foreign Policy, Joshua Foust in the Atlantic,  Jack Goldsmith in Lawfare, building on earlier pieces by  Scott Horton and Walter Russell Mead .

I don’t have a problem with these arguments to the extent that they are about the perceived negative consequences of the Libyan intervention for China and Russia’s domestic and international interests. But, as I wrote yesterday, I find the view that China and Russia vetoed because they felt “duped by the expansive interpretations given to the March 2011 UNSCR Resolution on Libya,” as Jack Goldsmith put it,  naïve and overly reliant on taking Russian and Chinese statements  at face value.

To be sure, many of the articles mentioned above rely on multiple links between Libya and Syria. Yet they all stress the precedent argument. Foust argues that China and Russia vetoed because NATO allies “badly overstepped the range of permissible actions stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolution that authorized intervention.” Walt claims that “part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council’s mandate during last year’s intervention in Libya.”

So, how plausible is it that the Russians and Chinese were duped by the Security Council resolution on Libya? The most important passage in resolution 1973 is that it authorizes Member States “acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements” to:

to take all necessary measures [..] to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.

In UN speak, “take all necessary measures” means “use force.” There are two restrictions on the use of force: that it should be to protect civilians attacked by the government and that it should not lead to a foreign occupation. Arguably, NATO exceeded the first restriction in that it actively helped the resistance defeat the regime. It is true that the Russians were vocal opponents of these actions.

What is not credible, however, is that the Russians couldn’t have foreseen that resolution 1973 essentially authorized regime change. While the Russians now insist that any resolution on Syria is neutral on the domestic conflict, resolution 1973 actively takes sides and condemns the Libyan regime. It allows France, the UK, and the US to use force to protect civilian populated areas under threat of attack, specifically mentioning Benghazi where the uprising was at its most intense. This is clearly a resolution that was designed to aid the Libyan rebels in their struggle against the government. There is no credible legal or other mechanism to hold states accountable for exceeding the restrictions of the resolution. These resolutions only matter to the extent that they make the intervention appear more legitimate in the eyes of domestic and foreign publics and governments. Why would you authorize such a resolution if your objective is to prevent actively encouraging regime change?

As I mentioned yesterday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was that country’s UN permanent representative for a decade. He has been part of many deals where the Russians and Chinese were perfectly willing to set aside their rhetorical commitment to nonintervention in domestic affairs. There is no way he didn’t understand what he was authorizing. Just as Obama’s insistence that this was not about regime change should have been taken with a heavy grain of salt, so should Lavrov’s later cries of foul play. This is business as usual in international politics: you strike deals that your constituents don’t like or that are inconsistent with past rhetoric, ask the other side to cloak it in terms that are acceptable, and then feign outrage when things happen that you knew would happen when you struck the deal.

What is much more plausible is that Libya didn’t pan out in the way the Russians and Chinese hoped. Recent UN authorized interventions have actually been pretty good for Russian and Chinese interests. They left the West bogged down in costly conflicts and didn’t affect their commercial interests very much. By contrast, Libya was cheap for the West and left the Russians and the Chinese on the outside. I think Walter Russel Mead has it right when he writes:

But what Russia thought it expected and deserved in return for its abstention on the Libya vote was due consideration for its commercial interests in Libya.  France, Britain and Qatar seem to be dividing that pie enthusiastically among themselves and nobody is thinking about Russia’s share and Russia’s price.

Then there are the domestic consequences, where protesters in both China and Russia appeared to gather strength from the Arab Spring revolutions. In short, little good resulted for the Russians and the Chinese from Libya. Before they thought it might be expedient to cautiously be on the side of the Arab League. Now firm resistance seems like the better policy option to protect their interests. It is also worth stressing again that the inability or unwillingness of states to create a credible option for acting outside the UN Security arena makes resistance a feasible policy option.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.