Is Libya a Turning Point on Humanitarian Interventionism?

Longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's bloodcurdling speech yesterday promising an imminent massacre of his opponents in rebel-held Benghazi may prove to be one of the classic political backfires. After he made it, the UN Security Council narrowly approved an unprecedented multilateral military intervention in Libya, what may turn out to be a landmark decision.

In Kosovo, NATO, without the support of the UN Security Council as Russia and China were in staunch opposition, intervened with air power to try to block Serbian "ethnic cleansing" efforts. Before that, in the Gulf War, US and allied forces acted with UN backing to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.

Now the UN has approved a military intervention against a government trying to suppress an internal uprising against it, setting what may become an important new precedent in the process. And it might not have happened had Gaddafi not delivered his fateful speech as the Security Council was preparing to vote.

This bloodcurdling speech by longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, which I listened to live yesterday afternoon, may prove to be one of the classic political backfires. After Gaddafi pledged to put his remaining opponents in Benghazi to the sword, the UN Security Council approved an unprecedented mulilateral military intervention in Libya.

I listened to Gaddafi's speech live on Al Jazeera. It was almost as though he was daring Western military intervention.

"The moment of truth has come," he said. Gaddafi warned that only those who put down their arms would escape his vengeance on "rats and dogs."

"It's over. The issue has been decided," Gaddafi said. "We are coming tonight" to Benghazi. "We will find you in your closets," he warned his enemies. "We will have no mercy and no pity."

It was a dramatic moment. Gaddafi, calling in to Libyan state television, said his troops would "rescue" the people of Benghazi, the last big stronghold for the uprising that two weeks ago looked to many to be just about to prevail. "Prepare for this moment to get rid of the traitors. Tomorrow we will show the world, to see if the city is one of traitors or heroes."

Just after that appalling performance, the UN Security Council in New York adopted a far-reaching resolution ordering an immediate ceasefire and authorizing a no-fly zone and actions necessary to protect civilians, a wide-ranging charter as it includes preemptive air strikes against Libyan ground forces. No foreign ground troops are to be inserted. The vote was 10-0 with 5 abstentions, including Russia and China, which had previously indicated their opposition to any such measure. By abstaining, these two countries avoided exercising their veto power.

Before the UN Security Council acted, Libyan government forces loyal to longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi yesterday were on the offensive against increasingly embattled rebel forces across the country, closing in on the remaining rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Celebrations erupted in Benghazi, where the live Al Jazeera feed revealed constant cheering as the UN vote unfolded in the US, then as as the various ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, delivered their statements. As the coverage unfolded, an unprecedented military coalition seemed to be coming together, with Britain, France, the US, other European nations, and Arab nations involved. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Jordan, and Al Jazeera host Qatar are the Arab nations named so far. And in a sign of how unusual this is, US military experts are appearing on Al Jazeera, once regarded by many as an ally of Al Qaeda.

Incidentally, Al Jazeera is proving to be an indispensable tool in following the Arab revolt. I've appeared on it many times, and have had a live link to its feed on my site for a few years now. It's imperfect, to be sure, a matter for another time, but its news flow is way ahead of the curve in comparison to American media outlets.

In the aftermath, Gaddafi's regime announced that it has agreed an immediate ceasefire. There was just one problem. Al Jazeera reported that Gaddafi's forces are still attacking. Not in Benghazi, which Thursday's UN move has probably saved -- even if the logistics of the no-fly zone are not yet in place, air and missile strikes against armored columns can take place -- but in at least two other places.

When Obama appeared at the White House today to lay out his reasoning, he warned Gaddafi not only to stay away from Benghazi but also to pull back from Adjabiya, Misrata, and Zawiya, all of which his forces have been besieging.

Appearing today at the White House, President Barack Obama laid out his reasons for authorizing U.S. participation in an international military intervention in Libya.

In addition to being an unprecedented move internationally, it's a big shift for the Obama Administration, which was hamstrung early on by the need to get Americans out of Libya, then by the danger to Libya's oil supply, upon which much of Europe is very reliant.

Foreign Policy's The Cable blog reports that Obama took the decision at a strategy meeting on Tuesday night to intervene in Libya with his longtime liberal advisor Samantha Power, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in favor and Defense Secretary Bob Gates and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon opposed.

A no-fly zone in itself probably wasn't enough, as Gaddafi has been rolling up the rebels mostly with ground forces. And Gates was concerned about the America being military over-stretched.

But a doctrine of humanitarian interventionism, which we heard a lot about in the 1990s from Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, carried the day. A doctrine that contains not just a no-fly zone but what many are calling a "no-drive zone."

Of course, it wasn't just America that had struggled to find a Gaddafi strategy.

The G8, European Union, and NATO had all struggled fruitlessly to come up with a position opposing Gaddafi's ruthless suppression of the rebellion.

British and French military forces may move against the Gaddafi regime in Libya today.

And just a week ago, new Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stepped in it with his classic candor-as-gaffe assessments before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Libyan civil war and deeper threats to America.

On a day in which NATO, and the Obama Administration's most publicly hawkish voice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, backed away from military intervention in Libya, Clapper said that Gaddafi was likely to prevail.

Which he was, absent the new moves approved by Obama and the UN Security Council.

Is this a new precedent opening a Pandora's box allowing intervention in the internal affairs of a rogue but still sovereign state?

Maybe so.

The resolution barely passed the UN Security Council. Russia and China each declined to use its veto power as part of the five permanent members of the Security Council. But with Brazil, India, and Germany also abstaining, the resolution garnered only one more vote than it needed.

And Gaddafi, a longtime international bogeyman, had just delivered a very chilling speech carried live on Al Jazeera that was hard to ignore.

But once something has happened, it can happen again. And the UN imprimatur isn't always necessary even in the most trumped up of circumstances, as we've already seen in Iraq.

We'll see how this goes.