Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 November 2011
Issue No. 1071
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

NATO, 'the right to protect' and Libya

Events in Libya opened the way to an expansion of NATO's global role, but for some its intervention was more self-serving than altruistic, writes El-Sayed Amin Shalabi

When NATO's original 15 members formed their alliance in 1949, their primary strategic objective was to keep the Soviet Union in check. In the wake of World War II, that rising military and ideological power had extended its hold over Eastern Europe and well before this communist parties had acquired considerable influence in Western European countries. Because NATO spearheaded the challenge to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War era, when the communist bloc collapsed and the so-called Soviet peril disappeared, NATO was hailed as the most successful alliance in history. At the same time, since the reason for NATO's existence no longer existed, many expected that it would vanish just as its adversary, the Warsaw Pact, had. But this expectation quickly subsided in the face of appeals to give NATO a fresh boost by revamping it and reordering its priorities so as to enable it to confront new threats and challenges such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental perils, epidemics, organised crime and illegal immigration.It was not long before the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of warfare in the Balkans forced NATO to address a major jurisdictional question: Should it continue to restrict itself to its original geographical scope or should it broaden this scope? After some hesitation, the dilemma was resolved in favour of intervening in Kosovo and Bosnia. Subsequently, its sights extended much further afield to include Afghanistan, where it still remains mired. Yet the development that proved the most decisive in resolving the question of NATO's scope and functions was the Libyan revolution. Several developments encouraged and ultimately settled the decision to intervene in that country. A dictatorial regime had begun to attack its own people, a regional organisation (the Arab League) appealed to the Security Council to pass a resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, and the Security Council responded in the form of resolution 1973, which authorised NATO to intervene. In spite of the justifications cited, NATO's intervention in Libya triggered intense debate between two schools of thought. One holds that the operation contravened the long established principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations, as enshrined in the UN Charter and universally accepted as an axiomatic underpinning of peaceful international cooperation. According to this body of opinion, it is the people themselves who grant or withdraw legitimacy from their government and who, therefore, constitute the only party entitled to overthrow it. The opposing school of thought maintains that the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of nations has substantially altered since former UN secretary-general Kofi Anan introduced the notion of the "right to intervene" in 1999. An international committee that was created to flesh out and refine this concept determined that "the right to intervene" was justifiable by what it termed the "responsibility to protect" (R2P). The two concepts combined set a theoretical and practical limitation on the concept of national sovereignty for, accordingly, when a regime exercises oppression and systematic violence against its own people, the international community not only has a right, but also a duty, to intervene.In the opinion of some, however, it was not such moral considerations that prompted the NATO intervention in Libya but rather economic ones, and specifically petroleum-related ones. EU Commission President Jose Barroso denied the allegation. Until this point, NATO countries had enjoyed excellent relations with the Gaddafi regime that had catered to their economic interests and their petroleum-related concerns, he insisted.

The contention over NATO's newly defined role reverberated inside NATO precincts as well. In a speech to the Security and Defence Agenda, a policy centre in Brussels, former US secretary of defense Robert Gates harshly criticised the alliance. The operations in Afghanistan and Libya have cast NATO's weak points into relief and point to a "dismal future" for the organisation, he said. While the Libya war was unanimously endorsed by NATO nations, less than half participated and less than a third carried out strike missions, he added. Worse yet, after the alliance took over the air war, following an initial US-led bombing campaign, he feared that "the mightiest alliance in history" would not be up to the task, even against "a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country". He warned that the US, which had traditionally led and bankrolled the alliance, was exhausted by a decade of war and weighed down by budget deficits, and that the time might come when it would not see NATO as worth supporting anymore. He strongly advised member nations to "avert the possibility of collective military irrelevance" and "to examine new approaches to boosting their combat capabilities".

The NATO intervention in Libya raises another central question. What stance will it take towards any other Arab regime that is lashing out against its own people? Already, some 3,000 people have died as the direct consequence of the repression and reprisals undertaken by President Bashar Al-Assad against protesters in Syria. Will NATO intervene there too? NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen responds that the factors that legitimised intervention in Libya -- an appeal by the Arab League and a UN Security Council resolution -- do not exist in the Syrian case. As for the alliance's future in Libya, he said that NATO would be prepared to contribute to building democracy in Libya, but otherwise he could see no important role for the alliance to play in that country. In all events, he added, successful democratisation must be a domestically driven process, although the international community, as embodied in the UN and the EU, should encourage a smooth and systematic transition to democracy.

The writer is managing director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

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