If the United Nations' vote that sanctioned military intervention in the Libyan conflict was surprising enough, its decision to send in its helicopters to blast away at Laurent Gbagbo's military camp in Abidjan this week was even more startling.
Once again it was done under a UN resolution supporting the use of force to protect civilians from the violence of war. Once again it was decided with a surprising degree of unanimity in the international community, with the African Union and West African Ecowas association acting as the equivalent of the Arab League in the case of Libya.
Whatever the formal reasoning, however, the fact is that Monday's direct rocket assault on Gbagbo's base marked a sharp escalation in the UN mission and one that has effectively made it – as in Libya – a direct participant in the war. What the action did was to tip the balance of the fighting by destroying Gbagbo's heavy weaponry and bringing the full force of Western arms on one side in the conflict.
On humanitarian grounds that might well be justified. The fighting in Abidjan had grown increasingly bitter, with – as ever – the civilian population the main victims of the violence, not just from the opposing forces but the armed militia and gangs taking advantage of the breakdown in law and order to pillage and kill at will. The sooner the battle was ended, the better.
In political terms, too, the case for intervention was strong – good enough for Ivory Coast's neighbours to join in the call for action anyway. The UN had declared Alassane Ouattara the winner of the recent elections, but the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, was refusing, with arms and troops behind him, to accept the result. Something had to be done to break the stalemate.
Yet you don't enter a military fray from the outside without consequences. Gbagbo, after all, did gain some 46 per cent of the recent vote. It won't be easy now to convince his tribal and ethnic supporters that this wasn't a foreign-orchestrated plot to unseat their legitimate leader.
By launching its rocket attack, together with helicopters of the French forces in the Ivory Coast, the UN has also associated itself with a former colonial power and one which, under President Sarkozy, is becoming increasingly assertive militarily in these sorts of conflicts. You'd have to be very naïve to believe the French President's assurances that France was only doing it for humanitarian reasons.
Abidjan also poses some serious questions about the future of the UN. What we are seeing at the moment, both in Libya and the Ivory Coast, is a reassertion of the principle of humanitarian intervention, only through the aegis of the UN. Srebrenica and Darfur still cast a long shadow over the UN and Western leaders, who feel that they cannot allow such outrages to recur, at least not within sight of cameras and mobile phones.
Yet the conditions which gave the UN such clear majorities on Libya and the Ivory Coast won't necessarily be repeated elsewhere. If Tibet rises up against its Chinese occupiers and the revolt is put down (as previous revolts have been) with maximum force, or Chechnya and the Caucuses go up in flames and the Russians intervene as brutally as they have in the past, what then?
Intervention in Libya and Abidjan has been carried out by, or in co-operation with, Western forces. Yet the ground rules for such actions haven't even been discussed, let alone elaborated upon. Nor has the UN been given the kind of resources that would enable it to carry out the military role which it is now taking upon itself. The debate over providing it with a standing army has gone on for decades and is no nearer realisation. Yet without some force of its own, it is difficult to see how the UN can proceed without relying on others, particularly the West, and thus appearing more and more one-sided in its behaviour.
We're entering uncharted waters here in which the standing of the UN is very much in play. It will need a profound re-think of its constitution and the membership of the Security Council if it is to hold its place as a neutral force for reconciliation in a fragmenting world.
The CIA returns to the Arab fray
While the US is keeping some distance from the action in Libya – indeed the reduction in the number of its air sorties is raising criticisms from its allies and the rebels on the ground – it is actually increasing its clandestine operations on the ground. The CIA is coming back into its own, as is the State Department. What else is General Khalefa Heftar, brought over from US exile to put some discipline into the rebel fighters, but Washington's man? Who is wielding the greatest influence (to the fury of the French) over the Tunisian and Egyptian armies currently in charge of their countries but the Pentagon and the US intelligence? Even more so in the Yemen, where Washington is trying to effect an acceptable takeover from President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
We're back to the old days of the Cold War. Whether the inhabitants of the countries will be quite so pleased is another question. It's not quite the same as the 1950s and 1960s, when the CIA unseated elected leaders to protect US interests. Now Washington is primarily concerned with stability in a fast-moving situation in which America has not been directly involved.
But there is a thin line, as those who know their 18th and 19th-century history will appreciate, between promoting "stability" and effecting control over the domestic affairs of other countries. History suggests that one soon leads to the other.Reuse content