2. Is Security Council approval necessary?
Britain, France, and the United States made winning the U.N. Security Council's approval for intervention in Libya a priority. A Russian or Chinese veto would have stopped the operation in its tracks, and Qaddafi today would likely be mopping up the remnants of a scattered opposition. That Libya's fate was effectively in the hands of Moscow and Beijing is a reminder that humanitarianism, at least sanctioned by the United Nations, depends on power politics.
Advocates of an international "responsibility to protect" (R2P) were thrilled that the powerful Security Council appeared to be endorsing the doctrine. Their joy may have been premature. The council soon divided into different camps on the conduct of the campaign, with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) in particular roundly criticizing what they saw as NATO's abuses of its authority.
Instead of cementing R2P into council practice, the Libya experience may have made future Security Council backing for humanitarian intervention less likely, at least in the medium term. Russia and China have been extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on Syria, in part because they don't want to start down the road taken in Libya. And that means that the international community will likely be forced to grapple again with how R2P meshes with existing international law, which requires Security Council approval for uses of force other than self-defense.
3. Can you defend civilians without taking sides?
As the BRIC countries and other critics have pointed out repeatedly, NATO's Libya action almost immediately became a regime-change operation, albeit a limited and halting one. In the midst of the campaign, NATO's Libya triumvirate -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Obama -- made clear that Qaddafi's defeat was essential. "It is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power," they wrote in mid-April. NATO's air power gradually wore down the regime's military forces. Coalition aircraft targeted Qaddafi's forces not only when they were engaged in attacks on civilians but when they were fighting armed rebels, transiting from one location to another, or simply idling in the desert. Western planes bombed the regime's senior leadership and selectively enforced the U.N. arms embargo on Libya so as to permit a flow of weapons to the rebels. Outside forces had a mandate to protect civilians; instead, they effectively became the rebel air force, special operations wing, and intelligence service.
The divergence between the mission's legal mandate and its methods drove some observers to distraction. But the duplicity was inevitable. Outsiders always struggle to police conflicts neutrally, and that difficult task becomes all but impossible from the air. Siding with the rebels was the only intervention strategy that made operational sense. The problem was not the strategy, but the inability of those intervening to honestly explain what they were doing. Because the Security Council never would have endorsed intervention on behalf of the rebels, intervening governments felt compelled to cast the entire operation in terms of neutral civilian protection.
This dynamic introduces a significant legitimacy problem for R2P. Non-Western observers are already wary of a doctrine that they believe easily slides into neocolonialism. The manifest partiality of the West's Libya intervention -- and its inability to speak clearly about what it was doing -- will likely heighten those concerns.