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Phyllis Bennis: NATO intervention goes far beyond UN resolution and sets a dangerous precedent

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. As we speak, rebel forces in Tripoli have breached the compound of Muammar Gaddafi. We don’t know yet whether Gaddafi’s actually in the compound, but one thing we do know is that the resolution of the United Nations seems to have been completely forgotten in this moment. What about international law? And what kind of precedent does all of this set? Now joining us to talk about this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author of Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the UN Defy US Power. And I guess you’re talking about a brief moment around the–before the Iraq war when you say the UN decides US power.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Indeed. The UN was part of a global movement.

JAY: So let’s talk about what’s happening now. What is your view in terms of what has this–what does this mean for international law?

BENNIS: Well, this has been a huge blow to international law. The legitimacy of the United Nations, the legitimacy of any idea of international responsibility has been shredded through this Libyan intervention. Among other things, what it said is that the very real issue, what the United Nations likes to call the responsibility to protect, which is a very real concept, the idea that sometimes people are threatened more by their own government than by any outside force, and in that situation, the international community has some obligation to protect them, that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that the way it gets defined is always as a way of justifying military intervention by wealthy, powerful countries against poorer, weaker countries. And in the case of Libya, what we saw was a resolution that began as a call from the rebel forces, who had–unlike their colleagues and comrades and brothers and sisters in other Arab countries in the so-called Arab Spring, this was very much in the context of the Arab spring. It was an uprising against a terrible dictatorship in the Arab world. But unlike other countries, the rebel forces, the opposition forces in Libya, took up arms very quickly. That was certainly their right to do so, but there are consequences when you make that choice.

JAY: Now, the people that were on the ground at the time or right soon after–and people who I’ve asked about this, they say, well, they had no choice; they were fired upon at a level that other peoples weren’t fired upon in the other Arab countries.

BENNIS: You know, these are questions for history, and clearly people believe that. So, as I say, this was the right of people to take up arms. Whether they had other options isn’t really the point. They made that choice. They chose that option. Then they made another choice, they took another option, which was to call for international support. At the very beginning–and you’ll remember this, Paul–there was a lot of talk about a no-fly zone. And Libyans were saying, we want a no-fly zone, we need a no-fly zone, because we’re being threatened by the Air Force. In fact, at that time the main threat seemed to be coming from the ground; it was coming from Gaddafi’s tanks, primarily, not so much from the Air Force. But there was a call for an Air Force which–I’m sorry–for a no-fly zone against the Libyan Air Force. And in response to that, a number of top people in the US Pentagon said, no, no, no, no, you can’t do a no-fly zone, because a no-fly zone starts with bombing Libya. Let’s be clear about it. The language was very straightforward. They said, we can’t do that alone; it wouldn’t work. So instead of saying–. And so we’re not going to support it. Instead of that, the US position was: we’re not going to support a no-fly zone alone. So give us that draft resolution, they said to the British and French, who were the ones pushing for this move; we will rewrite the resolution. And what they produced was a resolution that called not only for a no-fly zone, but for virtually unlimited military engagement under the terms that used the critical language “all necessary measures”.

JAY: To protect civilians.

BENNIS: To protect civilians. Now, there was no definition for what protecting civilians means. It was left up to NATO, who was essentially subcontracted, outsourced by the United Nations to be their agent.

JAY: Which finds a way to justify bombing Gaddafi’s house–

BENNIS: Exactly.

JAY: –as part of protecting civilians.

BENNIS: Many other houses as well. And the question of defining who are we going to attack, what is protecting civilians going to look like, was left not to the UN Security Council, not to the UN peacekeeping department, not, certainly, to the UN’s humanitarian agencies, but it was left to NATO. And that’s the old story of the hammer and the nail: when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re NATO, everything requires military intervention.

JAY: So what Putin later accused the Americans and French and British of doing is essentially really just picking one side in a civil war, supporting them under the rubric of protecting civilians.

BENNIS: Well, it’s a little bit–we have to be a little careful about Putin. It was, after all, the acquiescence of Russia and China in the UN Security Council, as well as South Africa and Brazil and India, countries that really should have known better, should have had more of a principled opposition to this, who allowed this to go forward.

JAY: I mean, that’s a very important point, because even if they had wanted to have some resolution to protect Benghazi, there could have been a far more restricted resolution.

BENNIS: Absolutely.

JAY: And instead they kind of–they let the–Europe–.

BENNIS: With no restrictions. They said to NATO, go ahead, do what you want. On the other hand, what Putin said about a civil war is certainly true, but it wasn’t true at that moment. It was not yet a civil war. What it was at that point was still an uprising against a dictatorship where people had taken up arms, but on a much smaller scale. They had shown themselves able to fight back quite successfully, but they still felt that they needed this external help. And quickly it became a civil war. Certainly the engagement of NATO, the US, and crucially Qatar and the UAE–the UAE wasn’t so important, but Qatar played a very important role, particularly politically, giving Arab cover to this NATO engagement, but also militarily, just in the recent period. It was a group of Qatari military people, special forces, who trained something that the Libyans began calling the Tripoli Brigade, which has played a key role in this most recent assault on Tripoli. So this outside force essentially ensured that this uprising was turned into a civil war, with NATO and the West on one side.

JAY: Because I think it’s pretty clear it could never gotten to the scale it did without this kind of NATO support.

BENNIS: Absolutely not.

JAY: I mean, it’s not that–the early stages of Benghazi are not that different than what seems to be going in some parts of Syria right now.

BENNIS: In Syria, and in fact what was going on at the same time in Bahrain, where you had a huge escalation. I mean, we forget how many people were killed in a very short time in Bahrain. We forget even in Egypt 900 people were killed in the 18 days of the uprising in Egypt. This was a nonviolent uprising, but it wasn’t nonviolent on the part of the Mubarak regime, and people paid a huge price for it. Now, the attacks that were beginning in Libya were more than that. But whether it was a qualitatively different situation, I’m not sure you can say that. It was more, but, you know, it was different. The point was this was a choice that was made by the people of Libya in what began as part of this uprising. One of the consequences, of course, is now the question is a very real one, whether this is, assuming there is at the end of the day a defeat of the Gaddafi regime and the coming to power of something else, whether that will be a real victory for the people of Libya or whether it will be a real victory for international oil companies and NATO. And our recent past shows that it’s not very often that you have an outcome that benefits both; it’s usually one or the other.

JAY: It’s not like Gaddafi was resisting international oil companies.

BENNIS: That’s the irony of all this.

JAY: I mean, he was playing ball, but perhaps, from what we know now, for those of you that saw our story about WikiLeaks and Gazprom and the ENI deal, it looks like Gaddafi was playing more ball with the Italians and the Russians and a lot less with the French and British.

BENNIS: But this is an issue within the powerful oil countries, the oil importing countries, whether that be Russia, whether–oil, of course, is both exported and imported in Russia. But Gazprom is one of the huge players. Russia is a huge player. The Europeans are huge purchasers, especially Italy, of Libyan oil. The US is a much smaller purchaser. France and the UK are kind of in between. There were battles going on among oil companies and among the countries that control those oil companies that want control of Libyan oil as well as other oil. But at the end of the day what we were seeing here was a scenario where Western oil interests collectively were going after Gaddafi after years of which Gaddafi was their guy–our guy, if you will.

JAY: But let me say, even if the outcome, say, is better for the Libyan people than it was under Gaddafi, it doesn’t actually change the issue of whether this NATO intervention was legal or illegal.

BENNIS: It doesn’t. We have to also separate, though, Paul, legality from legitimacy. In most ways, I would say that the NATO invasion so far–sorry, that the NATO intervention so far has, tragically, been legal, legal because it was authorized by the UN Security Council, whose resolutions are the ultimate deciding point of international law on the use of force.

JAY: But you have people like Putin, who was there, saying this goes so far beyond the resolution it’s not [crosstalk]

BENNIS: Right. Which you–is an argument for international scholars. I certainly thought it was illegitimate from the beginning. But what was authorized by the United Nations Security Council was any use of force, any use of anything, any necessary means without any objective measure, without any outside agency being tasked with determining what’s required, what isn’t. So anybody at NATO who says this is what’s required to protect civilians, who is there to say it wasn’t?

JAY: Well, let me go to one of your earlier points, then. I mean, is it possible within this United Nations to ever have a, quote, responsibility to protect implemented in a way that isn’t actually about just the agendas of the big powers?

BENNIS: Yes, it is. But it will take enormous fighting. That’s what my book is about that you mentioned. Challenging Empire was about a very particular moment in history, from the end of 2002 through early 2003, when there was this enormous global movement that culminated on February 15, 2003, the day the world said no to war. And 14 million people in 665 cities all around the world rose up on that day to tell their own governments, no, do not participate in this illegal war. And there was enough pressure that the UN at that point was prevented–the US and the Brits were desperately trying to get a resolution that would authorize war in the name of the United Nations the way Bush Senior had been able to do back in 1990-91. And instead, this time around they failed. And it was on February 15, in the middle of the enormous demonstration, the protest at the foot of the United Nations in New York, that the word came from AP, a two-line story that said the US and the Brits had just given up; in the face of this global civil society uprising, they were giving up their effort to get the UN to endorse a war. They went to war alone, but they did it in a way that made clear to the world that that war was illegal. It can be done, but it’s not going to be done by governments acting alone. Too often they do what Russia and China did this time around, stand back and say, well, it’s not going to hurt us very much if the US goes to war against Iraq or if NATO goes to war against Libya, so we’ll–you know, we’ll let them–we’ll let them have it, we’ll let them do it. It takes enormous global mobilization to put enough pressure on enough governments to stop that.

JAY: And in this case an illegitimate one in Libya.

BENNIS: In this case, an illegitimate one in Libya is exactly the result. So whatever the results of this–and there is already the danger–. We heard a NATO spokesperson today say that she believed that NATO would continue to play a role to assist in the post-Gaddafi Libya. Now, really, NATO is a military outfit. It doesn’t do anything else.

JAY: Well, they’ve actually–Richard Haass, who’s a leading foreign-policy wonk in Washington–

BENNIS: And the head of the Council on Foreign Relations.

JAY: Has actually used the term now it’s time for boots on the ground.

BENNIS: Indeed. And, in fact, we should be clear: there are foreign boots on the ground. There probably are not too many US boots, but there are certainly some Europeans that are involved in training. There were special forces from the US involved on the ground. If you remember, Paul, when that first plane was shot down and somehow the two pilots were rescued–one by helicopter, so maybe those guys weren’t on the ground, but the second pilot was rescued by Libyans who turned him over to American forces. I don’t think they made the guy swim out to the US boats. I think there were Americans on the ground who arranged that. But it’s very small-scale. I mean, we should be clear this is not the same as the US occupations.

JAY: Well, it’s not the same as what they’re talking about now, which–it sounds like an international force. They’ve been talking about Turkey and some of the regional players that are within the realm of the US sphere coming in, and they’re going to become the peacekeepers. But I think–.

BENNIS: But that’s NATO. Turkey is an active member of NATO. We shouldn’t disguise that.

JAY: Yeah, that may be what they’re talking about. But I think they shouldn’t underestimate–the Libyans have a long history of fighting foreign colonizers. I don’t think it should be underestimated. Thanks very much for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.