I recently returned from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where I gave a speech on UN reform at a conference on "Global Strategic Developments: A Futuristic Vision". It was an incredibly interesting place to get a perspective on the conflict in Libya. Speakers at the conference included the UAE's Foreign Minister, the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council and former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. The participants at the conference were from around the Arab world, Europe, the U.S., and many other nations.
There seems to be a general consensus that while the "no fly zone" will not stop the conflict in Libya, it is a necessary evil. Gaddafi has gone too far. I've heard comments like, "Gaddafi is crazy. No one should do this to his people."
While simply denying him his air force and armor has not stopped the fighting, it has stopped Gaddafi's ability to use his planes to strike at peaceful protesters. But in Libya, the protesters of a few weeks ago have either hunkered down or are now part of the opposition force.
The no fly zone has bought opposition fighters more time and evened the odds. And it has had another important impact: if Gaddafi had been allowed to overwhelm the Libyan opposition, it would have sent a chilling message to other beleaguered leaders facing popular protest that it was okay to use unmitigated violence to maintain power.
In Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain autocratic rules are weighing how much force to use to protect their regimes against demonstrators who are employing tactics closer to those of Martin Luther King or the anti-Vietnam War movement rather than Al Qaida.
For those who are questioning President Obama's decision to pursue Security Council authorization to limit Gaddafi's ability to project force within his own country, get over it. The reaction I picked up from policy makers and academics in Abu Dhabi is that it was the right thing to do. Obama has sent a clear message with both words and deeds that the U.S. will only engage in a limited and multilateral fashion. NATO's agreement to take over command and control of the operation reinforces that this is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is the international community, for first time, exercising its duty to protect a civilian population.
But these questions still need to be answered: As tensions within nations heat up across the region, can enough be done to shield people who want a better and safer life for their families from violence prone rulers? Is there a way to turn shouts of rage into fair governance? Is there a more effective way to robustly protect civilians then the blunt edge of an air-based campaign?
Certainly a U.S. or NATO led Iraq style ground invasion would be the wrong way to go, even if it had the blessing of the UN Security Council. Not only would the protesters seeking a new deal oppose this, so would U.S. and European publics. Intervention by Arab League nations is not to be expected either (ignoring the Saudi led GCC intervention in Bahrain) as they have their hands full at home.
One proposal that did receive some positive support in Abu Dhabi was the notion that if a UN force went in to create the space for a political settlement, flying the blue flag, with people from every nation and every religion included, they would likely be accepted. Of course the UN doesn't have its own multinational military force. And sending in a traditional UN peacekeeping force into active conflict wouldn't work. There is no peace to keep.
But why not create a tough international force under UN command and control made of diverse nationalities with a clear mandate to go into shattered nations, protect civilians, and restore law and order?
John Negroponte, the former Director of National Intelligence called for such a Security Council resolution on CNN this weekend. It's clear the U.S. and the international community do not have the right tools at their disposal to protect civilians. Air and naval support only get you so far. Nations are reluctant to risk troops and treasure to defuse conflicts that that are not clearly in the national interest, particularly if they will be perceived as invaders.
It's time to move ahead and, dare I say it, let the UN have a protection force that can get the job done.