As foreign ministers and senior officials from 40 countries and international organizations arrived at London’s stately Lancaster House on a mildly wet, bleak morning, they had hoped to present the blueprint of what post-Gaddafi Libya would look like. It may be an Arab Spring, but in London, Tuesday was a typical cold day. The gray sky dampened some enthusiasm, and the leaders went back with less clear directions than they would have liked but with greater realization that they couldn’t afford to get the intervention in Libya wrong.
Lancaster House is the site of many a historic conference, including the 1979 agreement that paved the way to the independence of Zimbabwe. On that scale, the Libya conference wasn’t as epoch-making, but much was riding on it, given the disrepute into which the idea of humanitarian intervention has fallen. At the end of the session, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, could announce only modest achievements, including the formation of a Libya Contact Group that would meet first in Qatar and whose membership wasn’t made public, though the chairmanship will rotate among members. Concurrently, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization took over the command and control of operations, and Sweden, which is not a NATO member, said it would participate in military action. Qatar promised that more Arab states would join the military action.
The ritual of reaffirming the international community’s commitment to U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 was observed. That resolution allows for the imposition of the no-fly zone, establishes the arms embargo, permits airstrikes to protect civilians, calls for ensuring humanitarian aid to Libyans, and helps Libyans to plan their own future after the war has ended.
Nobody at Lancaster House used the words “regime change,” but the removal of Col. Muammar Gaddafi was on many minds. Restraining them was not only the U.N. resolution, but also the clear statement of President Obama on Monday: “Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.”
The London meeting is part of the long journey to rebuild international legitimacy.
And yet, as his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forcefully told the conference, Gaddafi must go. Hague wouldn’t get drawn into the nuances of where that might be, and on Tuesday morning Hague told a radio program that the allies were not going to choose “Col. Gaddafi’s retirement home.” If the Libyan people decided to send him to the International Criminal Court, Hague would have no problem with that.
Opening the conference, Prime Minister David Cameron forcefully defended the intervention in Libya as the right thing to do: “Be in no doubt. Our action saved the city of Benghazi. It averted a massacre. And it has given freedom a chance in Libya. But be in no doubt about something else. As I speak the people of Misrata are continuing to suffer murderous attacks from the regime. I have had reports this morning that the city is under attack from both land and sea. Gaddafi is using snipers to shoot them down and let them bleed to death in the street. He has cut off food, water and electricity to starve them into submission. Our military actions can protect the people from attack; and our humanitarian actions can help the people recover. But neither are sufficient to provide the path to greater freedom.”
But even as the British and the French wanted swifter movement, others thought differently. The Turks were keen to help negotiate a cease-fire, leaving open the possibility for Gaddafi to stay. The Italians didn’t mind Gaddafi finding a face-saving exit. The Qataris wanted other Arabs to do pull their weight. Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, upon whose intercession the international community had decided to act in Libya, was himself absent, though the Organization of Islamic Countries was present.
Amid all this, the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council wanted one thing: weapons. Mahmoud Shammam, spokesman of the council, said at a press conference: “We asked everybody to help us in many ways. One of them is giving our youth some real weapons. If you look to the reports that you have from the streets of Libya or from the cities of Libya, you will see that our people have very light arms. We don’t have arms at all; otherwise, we finish Gaddafi in a few days.”
Americans wouldn’t immediately deliver the weapons, but said the resolution offered sufficient latitude to give arms, Clinton said. The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, pragmatically added: “We have to evaluate the airstrikes after a while to see if it is effective to protect the people of Libya or not. We are not talking about invading Libya. But we have to evaluate the situation because we cannot allow the people to suffer for so long. We have to find a way to stop this bloodshed.”
There are sound reasons for caution. Few know much about the council or of Gaddafi’s opponents. While Cameron met Mahmoud Jabril, special envoy of the council, the Libyan wasn’t offered a seat at the conference table, as Britain said it recognized states, not governments. Hanging over the conference were the remarks of Admiral James Stabridis, NATO’s supreme commander for Europe and the United States’ European commander, who said intelligence suggested “flickers” of al Qaeda or Hezbollah among the Gaddafi opponents.
The council tried its best to allay such concerns. Its document, “A Vision of a Democratic Libya,” read as though it was partly inspired by Founding Fathers in Philadelphia, with its commitment to democracy and pluralism, but also by a Tony Blair-type third way, talking about partnerships between the public and private sector, and recognizing the role of civil society and expressing concern for the environment.
If the London conference revealed anything, it is the limits to the power Western governments have in the post-Iraq international order. The confidence and assertions of regime change that accompanied the build-up to the Iraq War are gone. The failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994 and the aggressive response to the Balkan wars later that decade inspired leaders like Gareth Evans of Australia and Michael Ignatieff of Canada to push the notion of international responsibility to protect. But the idea suffered after the way the United States and the United Kingdom went about attempting to build consensus for the invasion of Iraq and going ahead with the invasion after failing to get a second U.N. resolution authorizing force. Its consequence: the tiptoeing around language and possible courses of action in dealing with a conflict like Libya. The London meeting is part of the long journey to rebuild international legitimacy.
This time they want to get it right.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London currently writing two books. Former correspondent for Far Eastern Economic Review in Singapore, he has written for the Independent, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New Republic in the US, and is a columnist at Mint and contributing editor at Caravan in India. He has an MBA from the Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College.