U.S. Pushing U.N. Security Council To Authorize Direct Intervention In Libya

The Obama Administration is asking the U.N. Security Council to authorize direct military intervention in Libya. The question is, why now?

With the prospect of a successful no-fly zone pretty much out the window, and after several weeks of not really giving any indication of what he was thinking in terms of what to do about Libya, President Obama seems to be taking a rather odd policy turn at the last minute:

WASHINGTON — The prospect of a deadly siege of the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, has produced a striking shift in tone from the Obama administration, which is now pushing for the United Nations to authorize aerial bombing of Libyan tanks and heavy artillery to try to halt the advance of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.

Administration officials — who have been debating a no-flight zone for weeks — concluded that such a step now would be “too little, too late” for rebels who have been pushed back to Benghazi. That suggests more aggressive measures, which some military analysts have called a no-drive zone, to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from moving tanks and artillery into Benghazi.

The United States is insisting that any military action would have to be carried out by an international coalition, including Libya’s Arab neighbors.

The rapid advance of forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi, combined with rising calls from the Arab world to prevent a rout of the opposition, has changed the calculations of the administration, which had clung to a belief that interfering in a Middle East uprising could provoke an anti-American backlash.

“The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday to reporters traveling with her in Cairo. “That was an extraordinary statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members.”

Mrs. Clinton said she was hopeful that the Security Council would vote no later than Thursday. The American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, is in intensive negotiations over the language of a resolution, sponsored by Lebanon, another Arab state, and backed by France and Britain.

It is unclear how much the administration is willing to put on the line in Libya, given its deep aversion to being entangled in another war and its clear calculation that Libya does not constitute as vital a security interest to the United States as other countries in the region, notably Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Some administration officials voiced the hope that the mere threat of military action could prompt Colonel Qaddafi to show some restraint.

Still, interviews with several administration officials suggested that events on the ground were forcing its hand. “The regime’s military gains have gotten everyone’s attention,” said a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

President Obama is under pressure from both foreign leaders and allies in Congress to take decisive action. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent a letter to the United States and other members of the Security Council, urging them to vote for the Lebanese resolution authorizing a no-flight zone, saying that the world had only days, or even hours, to head off a Qaddafi victory.

On Wednesday, one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam, urged the rebels to leave the country, saying, “Within 48 hours everything will be finished. Our forces are almost in Benghazi.”

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he regretted that the debate in Washington over how to respond to Libya had dragged on so long, allowing Colonel Qaddafi to regain his footing.

“I don’t like that we’ve lost this time,” Mr. Kerry said during a speech in Washington. “It’s compacted the choices, diminished the options. And it’s changed the state of play somewhat.”

Administration officials contend that a no-flight zone alone would not be effective, in part because they say it could not be set up before April.

Among the other measures being proposed by the United States: sending foreign soldiers to Libya to advise the rebels, or financing them with some of the $32 billion belonging to the Qaddafi regime, which have been frozen by the Treasury Department. Rebels could use the money to buy weapons, officials said.

Neither of these steps, however, would come in time to stave off an assault by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces on Benghazi.

Which makes one wonder why they are being proposed at all.

All reports at this point seem to indicate that the forces loyal to Gaddafi and the rebels are headed for a final clash at or near Benghazi. In fact, Saif Gaddafi boasted yesterday that the conflict would be over within 48 hours. Even if the resolution were approved, it seems unlikely that we’d be able to do anything to reverse the tide at this point. At best, intervention would hold off a final victory by Gaddafi and turn this conflict into a prolonged civil, perhaps guerilla, war, a war that we would then be responsible for seeing to a successful conclusion. Direct intervention on this scale therefore seems to be incredibly over-the-top considering the minimal national security issues at stake for the United States.

More broadly, though, it seems incredibly unlikely that the Security Council would approve this. Neither Russia nor China seem like they would be willing to agree to this kind of outside intervention in the internal affairs of another nation, not matter what the reason. If they exercise their vetoes, then the resolution is dead and, since the Obama Administration has already said that they will not take action outside of the authorization of an authorization from the UN or NATO, that would be the end of the debate.

All of this leads me to believe that this Security Council resolution is really an effort by the White House and the other Western powers to be able to say “See, we tried” if and when the “Who Lost Libya?” debate erupts. Either that, or they actually think that directly intervening in another war in another Muslim country is a good idea.

But nobody could be that dumb, right?

Update: The Security Council is scheduled to vote on the resolution at 6pm EDT today, and indications are that it will pass, albeit not unanimously:

French Ambassador Gerard Araud said there would no unanimity. “There will be some suprises and more than one abstention,” he said. Diplomats speculated that as many as five nations could abstain, including China, Russia, Germany, India and South Africa.

The measure would pass with nine votes and no vetoes on the 15-member council.

And indications are that military action could begin within hours of an affirmative vote:

Britain, France and the US, along with several Arab countries, are to join forces to throw a protective ring around the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi as soon as a UN security council vote on military action is authorised, according to security council sources.

A source at UN headquarters in New York said military forces could be deployed “within hours” of a new security council resolution calling for states to protect civilians by halting attacks by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces by air, land and sea.

The resolution would impose a no-fly zone over Libya – but a no-fly zone was no longer enough, the source said. “The resolution authorises air strikes against tank columns advancing on Benghazi or engaging naval ships bombarding Benghazi,” he said.

Britain, France and Lebanon sponsored the new resolution, which provides the moral and legal basis for military action.

British and French forces are understood to have been placed on standby after the US said it was prepared to support the measure if Arab countries agreed to take an active role.

So, it appears quite likely that there will be military action against Gaddafi within the next twelve hours or so. It will be interesting to see just how “international” this effort actually is.



FILED UNDER: Africa, Middle East, United Nations, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. mattt says:

    Maybe the CIA finally identified an faction among the rebels that is in – in some analysis – worthy of support. My guess is that much of the foot-dragging in getting behind the revolt has been due to uncertainty as to who the rebels really are, and what kind of state Libya would become if they were successful.

  2. He’s continuing the Clinton (Kosovo) and Bush (Iraq) policy of responding to international crises by showing up months later and bombing the wrong country.

  3. Wayne says:

    It is probably little more than political posturing. If they wanted to do anything they needed to get in front of it from the start or at least appeared to be trying. The SF option of training a Guerrilla force would be ass backwards now. Usually you train up a G force so they can do a major insurrection. One can go in after a failed major insurrection but you have to convince the rebels that you actually back them and gain their trust. That is hard to do when you didn’t even seem to try to lift a figure the first time around.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Reuters just tweeted that they have approved.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Nope, sorry, badly-composed tweet.

  6. Well, Libya’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council has been suspended. Perhaps it is in serious jeopardy?

  7. Idiot says:

    Of course it is for show before the Libyan forces wipe out the rebels and their familes and friends.

  8. Franklin says:

    The Arab League vote was surprising, at least to me. But it’s their vote; let’s see if they’re willing to back it up. Still don’t see any need for us to get involved.

  9. Steven Plunk says:

    This just further damages our credibility abroad. This comes too late to do much good and exposes the fatal flaw in Obama’s brilliance, he can’t make up his mind.

    It would have been better to not do this now that the rebel force is almost defeated. We could have claimed staying out was the right thing to do (it wasn’t) and saved face.

    History will look upon this episode and judge it a complete foreign policy failure. We were warned about amateurs in the White House.

  10. jwest says:

    This is what happens when you put a totally unqualified person in the presidency.

    A Harvard degree doesn’t give you character, nor does it change a bumbling, indecisive academic into a competent executive. Not since Jimmy Carter has an American president been so inept.

    Perhaps Mr. Joyner will take a lesson from this next time he compiles his list of presidential qualifications.

  11. rodney dill says:

    My theory is that he did it at the first possible instance where it could not possibly appear presidential.

  12. matt says:

    A no fly zone is guaranteed to cost us hundreds of millions of dollars to enforce plus however hundreds in millions dollars worth of planes shot down and people killed.. I still don’t think it’s a good idea for us to lead the way on this.. Push behind the scenes to get Europe and the Arab league involved as primary actors..

  13. michael reynolds says:

    I wait, breathless, to watch the pivot of the loud-mouths who’ve been attacking Obama for inaction. How long until they attack him for the very action they attacked him for failing to take?

    Will it be days?



  14. jwest says:


    As you’re waiting breathlessly, take a moment to think about the past few years. Obama came to office with super majorities in congress and a large percentage of the popular vote. He campaigned on change. Since he was elected, has he ever led on anything? What is it he has done that wasn’t a half-hearted effort, always being “clarified” as he held his finger to wind? Even his misconceived healthcare initiative was a weak compromise cobbled together by the idiots Pelosi and Reid, while Obama sat passively by on the sidelines.

    This is someone who had never held a position of leadership. He never was a mayor, never a governor, not even an executive in the private sector. His record in the state legislature was one of voting “present”. He served 16 days as a senator before devoting himself to his campaign.

    Now, the people of Benghazi are hours away from a slaughter. I’m certain Obama will recommend a commission be formed to look into the human rights violations and urge that a strong resolution condemning the genocide be drafted. Just the actions a perpetual committee member would do in these circumstances.

    Making hard, unpopular decisions is what the job of president is about. Barack Obama was never close to qualified to take the job.

  15. mattt says:

    The fact that actions might begin within hours after the resolution suggests that part of the “dithering” may have been to the realities of force positioning. It would not have not much good for US credibility to have unilaterally “imposed” a no-fly zone a week ago, without adequate forces in position to enforce it.

    Also, what is the timeline in terms of the administration’s shift, and the new crackdown in Bahrain? How much of this sudden initiative in Libya is meant to send the message that, even if Ghaddafi gets away with what he’s done to his own people, other despots should not follow his footsteps?

  16. michael reynolds says:


    Are you deaf and blind or just dumb?

    Before Doug wrote this now self-evidently wrong post Obama had already arranged for carte blanche from the security council and the Arab League to attack Gaddafi’s forces.

    Do you think the Russians and Chinese just spontaneously decided to abstain? It took George HW Bush months to accomplish what Obama and Hillary did in a week. I acknowledged the senior Bush’s diplomatic brilliance. But of course you don’t really give a damn about reality, you have your echo-chamber narrative and you’ll stick to it.

    You’re clueless. You’ll never see but a reflection of your own prejudices.

  17. Jay Tea says:

    Could someone please make the case for intervening militarily in Libya that does NOT also justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq? ‘Cuz I’m hearing a ton of echoes from folks who can be trusted to say the nastiest things about that action…


  18. Jay Tea says:

    Three words, michael: Quid Pro Crude.

    Look it up.