Mark Malloch-Brown: Diplomatic 'triumph' at the UN is unravelling already

The Council might have begun by contemplating two clear political alternatives and then developing a military strategy that flowed from that choice
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Last week's UN Security Council resolution was a triumph of diplomacy. But therein lies the rub. Finding words that bridged very different points of view on a Libyan intervention created a near consensus in the Security Council, 10 in favour and five abstentions, but the price of this agreement on words was a muddle on the underlying political approach and the military strategy to follow.

For some, particularly abstainers like Russia and China, a humanitarian no-fly zone amounted to the ceiling on the action they would allow. Air patrols would stop Colonel Gaddafi mounting air attacks on civilians. End of story.

For Britain and France most notably, with a more cautious United States behind them, this was the floor not the ceiling. Despite intermittent denials, it is surely about tipping the conflict in the rebels' favour to the point where, by hook or by crook, Gaddafi goes. The resolution's diplomatic fudge has its virtues but risks being an insufficiently firm glue to hold the international effort together.

In a less imperfect world, the Council might have begun by contemplating two clear political alternatives and then developing a military strategy that flowed from that choice. If the Council was, as it did to act under the important new doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect", which allows intervention when a government turns on its own people and causes indiscriminate civilian casualties, then a better strategy would have been to combine a no-fly zone and the associated attacks on ground military logistics by declaring Benghazi and other eastern cities UN safe havens. This would have required landing troops (certainly non-Western) to protect the citizens and ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief. That option would not be possible under the resolution because an on-the-ground military presence is essentially limited to scouting for targets for air attacks. The resolution bans "a foreign occupation force".

A UN-sponsored military perimeter force would breach this. Yet without it, trying to police a humanitarian peace from the air has been shown to be flawed in the Balkans and Iraq.

The reason foreign occupation forces are so explicitly banned is the fear among Arab States, and others themselves cracking down on internal dissent, that the humanitarian mission is the thin end of the wedge to allow a role that will expand to regime change. The second political choice, that could have been made but was not, is one as old as the UN charter itself: that Colonel Gaddafi poses a threat to international peace and security. This would have been a precedent-setting decision. Yet given Colonel Gaddafi's track record the last time he fell out with the international community, there is every reason to suspect if he is allowed to he would revert to funding terrorism and wreaking whatever havoc he can on Arab League neighbours who have come out against him. Why the current diplomacy is likely to be so difficult is because Western actions and declarations are condemned to the first (protecting civilians) while their real but undeclared ambition (ridding his country and the world of Gaddafi) needs to be kept locked in the attic if international unity is to be retained.

Mark Malloch-Brown is the author of 'The Unfinished Global Revolution' and a former UN Deputy Secretary-General