by M K Bhadrakumar

The role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Libya opens a new chapter in international security. Its so-called Operation Unified Protector (OUP) was shrouded in controversy insofar as it unilaterally insisted that its Libyan intervention enjoyed the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, while Russia and China disputed the alliance’s assumption that Resolution 1973 mandated the kinds of activities that the alliance undertook in Libya.

The way NATO is ending OUP is equally controversial. The announcement by NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels on Friday to this effect contains many nuances and sets not a few precedents for the future in regional conflicts such as Syria.

First and foremost, Rasmussen’s statement insisted that OUP was in compliance of the “historic mandate” given by the UN Security Council to “protect the people of Libya”. But it pointedly failed to take note of the unanimous resolution passed by the Security Council in New York only the previous day calling for the lifting of the “no-fly zone” over Libya. In essence, Rasmussen’s statement stressed that the alliance suo moto took the decision to end the operation for Libya on October 31.
Indeed, right up to that cut-off date on October 31, he insisted haughtily that NATO “will continue to monitor the situation. And if needed, we will continue to respond to threats to civilians.”

Playing both ways
On the other hand, Russia, which tabled Thursday’s Security Council resolution (2016) maintains that the “ban on the use of Libyan airspace has long since become an anachronism … [and] unilateral action in this area is unacceptable and in contradiction with Resolution 1973.”

However, the United States ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice, firmly countered the Russian accusation. She said on Thursday:

And indeed, it was very clear, as we discussed and negotiated Resolution 1973, what the authorization of the use of force to protect civilians would entail. And we discussed it very concretely and plainly – we described thoroughly that this would entail active use of air power and air strikes … And so there was no question that the members of the Security Council knew what they were voting for.

Now, undoubtedly, as this unfolded and occurred over the course of some months, there were those that found increasingly uncomfortable what it was they had agreed to. But to suggest that somehow they were misled is false.

Rice has a point. After having acquiesced with Resolution 1973 and unable or unwilling (or both) to make the Libyan crisis a factor in their wide-ranging relationship of cooperation-cum-competition with the US, Russia and China merely sat on the fence dangling their feet and resorted to seeking some propaganda mileage. A feature of the Libyan case is that Russia (and to an extent China) played it both ways.

The curious part is that Russia tabled its draft for Resolution 2016 knowing beforehand that the Libya Contact Group (LCG) was already in the process of winding down NATO operations and had taken a decision to terminate the OUP by end-October. (Rasmussen spoke the truth.)

In short, Russia was doing some timely grandstanding, but was actually harmonizing its diplomatic posturing with that of the LCG. From NATO’s viewpoint, therefore, Resolution 2016 is a bit of a sideshow, as it were. The alliance cannot be faulted, either, since Resolution 2016 turned out to be, finally, a joint Russian-British resolution. (So much for the much-vaunted Russia-China “coordination” in the Security Council.)

Equally, at the time of Resolution 1973, there were pretensions of something in the nature of a common BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) position on Libya. (Brazil, India and South Africa also happen to be represented at the Security Council at present.)

Simply put, a chip “BIS” has dissociated from BRICS, as the “BIS” countries felt disillusioned that ultimately the DNA of Russia and China is of the permanent five of the Security Council rather than of BRICS.

The “BIS” have now decided to act on their own within their own exclusive forum known as IBSA on the situation around Syria rather than be the poodles of Russia and China. Ironically, Russia used to be the most vocal enthusiast of the BRICS until not long ago. Libya may have lethally undermined the BRICS’s credibility to emerge as a forceful political voice on the international stage. BRICS will need time to resurrect, if at all, and may remain a mere “talking shop” for the foreseeable future.

Having said that, Russia’s motives in showing such day-to-day pragmatism over the Libyan problem cannot be faulted. It acted all through in its self-interest. And Russia now wants to leave behind the Resolution 1973 controversy as a small relic of big-power diplomacy in the cloistered chambers in Turtle Bay and, perhaps, may keep revisiting it now and then if the need arises for propaganda.

But essentially, Moscow doesn’t want to complicate its dealings with the new Libyan regime or with the West or with the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf that ganged up with the Western powers. (Russia’s ruling party turned down a move for the Duma (parliament) to adopt a resolution condemning the gruesome murder of Muammar Gaddafi.)

Shades of Abyssinia
The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in fact, left Moscow at the weekend to participate in the first ministerial meeting of the Russia-Gulf Cooperation Council (Russia-GCC) Strategic Dialogue taking place in the United Arab Emirates on Monday.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the cooperation with the GCC met Moscow’s “long-term interests, and helps strengthen the position of our country in the Arab Muslim world”. The spokesman added that cooperation with the GCC was “an integral part of Russian activity in the Islamic sector”, advancing “business interests in the Islamic world and attracting its funds into the Russian economy”.

In sum, Rasmussen’s statement is spot on while suggesting implicitly that important decisions on Libya are no longer going to be taken in the UN Security Council but will be something between “democratic Libya” and NATO. He put it bluntly, “And NATO stands ready to help, if needed and requested, to help Libyans reform the security and defense institutions that all democracies need to remain free and safe.”

Unsurprisingly, the chairman of the National Transitional Council in Triploi, Mustafa Abdul-Jallil, has demanded that he would like NATO to continue its activities in Libya “at least up to the end of the year”.

What is in the cards is that NATO forces will remain in Libya for a long time to come. In immediate terms, no matter Resolution 2016, NATO warplanes will continue to patrol Libyan skies, while NATO trainers will create the Libyan armed forces, which will adopt the alliance’s standards in training and will buy weapons (with its petrodollars) that make them “inter-operable” with NATO.

All this goes parallel with the creation of a new regime in Tripoli. For all purposes, Libya is becoming a NATO protectorate.

The Libyan experience becomes the first test case of NATO’s new “strategic concept” adopted at the Lisbon summit one year ago, which turned the alliance into a new international security presence in the 21st century capable and willing to intervene in global “hotspots” with or without a mandate from the UN.

Thus, what we may expect in Libya is that technically, NATO operations cease on October 31, but nothing actually changes on the ground. The mission will be labeled as some sort of mission of the Friends of Libya coalition. (In any case, the NATO mission in Libya itself is a novel experience, being a “coalition of the willing” among member-countries.)

Behind-the-scenes parleys are going on to put together a band of countries, including the US, which will continue with the NATO mission under a new rubric. It could well be that the flag-carrier of the coalition may be a little, non-controversial fellow like Qatar, which is neither a Western country nor a NATO power nor a big power and doesn’t evoke strong feelings on the political or ideological spectrum.

From the Western viewpoint, what matters is that Qatar is a Muslim Arab country, whose regime has a strong congruence of interests with the West in fashioning the transition in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, and is willing to continue to generously bankroll the transition in Tripoli.

Looking back, what has been unfolding in Libya is of deep significance for the international system. There was nothing that Russia or China or the BRICS or the IBSA or the world community as a whole (minus the Friends of Libya) could do in what is often called the “multi-polar world” to arrest NATO in its tracks in Libya. A strong precedent has been created.

For historians, the Libyan case file presents a comparative study of “great-power diplomacy” and cynical appeasement of aggression. In many ways, the Libyan war harks back to the Abyssinia crisis of 1934. The big question is, if appeasement over Abyssinia ultimately didn’t arrest the aggressor (Italy) from future excursions, can it be otherwise now as we turn eyes toward Syria?


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


Originally published in Asia Times, Nov. 1. 2011