Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan gave an interview to Alex Russel of the UK Financial Times, in the last week of April 2011. In it, he talked about the Libyan civil war.
He's not as critical as I think he should be of NATO members' handling of the crisis it seems likely they helped create. But he does have some interesting and useful insights worth sharing here.
He starts with the Libyan government's rapprochement with the west following its 2003 letter about their blame in bombing Pan Am 103, renouncing all terrorism, and nuclear deterrent development. For this, and opening its markets somewhat to the outside world, the regime was rewarded for an eight-year golden age of non-sanctions before the current overthrow effor began.
AR: You negotiated with Gaddafi over the years. How would you assess him now?
KA: He came out of the cold and probably felt he had managed a difficult situation very well. He went to European capitals. European heads of government and heads of state flew down to see him. He probably felt he'd re-established and reinstated himself as a member of the international community. And then, of course, this happens. He'll probably wonder if indeed there has been that much progress in his relations with them. My sense is that he'll become much more suspicious today and, unless he's really backed into a corner, will be extremely difficult to negotiate with.
AR: What about the bigger issue of the intervention? There are all sorts of historical parallels one can come up with. One analogy is, of course, 1991 after Iraqis had been pushed out of Kuwait and then the world's policymakers decided not to intervene to stop Saddam putting down the Shiite uprising. Should the policymakers have done the same thing, should they have hardened their hearts this time?
KA: I think the world has moved on. You're right to start with 1991 but one would also need to look at Srebrenica and Rwanda and the repetition of the phrase "never again," or "we will defend the helpless". And there was a situation where Gaddafi himself, he brought it on himself with some of the statements he was making about being "merciless" and "blood will flow" and all that. When a leader makes that sort of statement and you see him approaching populated areas with tanks and military gear and equipment, an international community that had been talking tough and talking of a no-fly zone and rushing to establish a no-fly zone would have had a lot to answer for if they had not intervened to protect the population.
The question is where you draw the line. Was every action taken by the coalition designed to protect helpless civilians or, in some cases, to support the weak, rebellious army? And how far do you go? And does it fit with the [UN] Security Council resolution and the mandate? And we should remember that it wasn't a unanimous decision and some pretty important countries abstained. So you start with a divided Council, which makes it even more important that those in action respect the mandate otherwise the divisions widen. And the Council can get paralysed on future decisions on Libya.
The bolded part is my emphasis - this tough talk was optional, and counter-productive as far as avoiding warfare and innocent deaths. The tough talk upped the rebels' determination and audacity, toughening the regime's stance, and so on until bombs are flying, as NATO prefers - sticking to their strengths.
AR: You seemed to imply, from your earlier remarks, though, that you were in favour of the Libyan intervention.
KA: I'm in favour of the efforts that were made to protect the people. You see, the problem, the argument the Libyan intervention will lead to, is they quoted the "responsibility to protect" but it's a graduation. You sort of go through a whole series of events and as a last resort you use force; political pressure, sanctions and others.
Of course, one could claim that we were beyond that, that the way events were moving so fast, you couldn't influence a situation by applying political or diplomatic pressure, imposing sanctions, and that more effective measures had to be used, and this is the argument that has been made.
And I think the whole world saw that time was on the move with the people in Benghazi and they felt that action was taken to stop the tanks before they got to Benghazi and did lots of damage. I'm sure everyone will support that, or most people will support it. I can say most people will support that.
And, as I suspected, the rebels will not be ready to talk to Gaddafi. They want Nato to help remove him, and of course, I think eventually probably he will have to go, but you cannot put it upfront the way people are saying: Gaddafi must go. A future Libya without Gaddafi must be part of the negotiations and handled properly. It should be part of the agenda, and this mantra of Sarkozy, Cameron, Gaddafi is one… Obama saying Gaddafi must go. Putting it upfront like that… it's not very helpful.
But, on the other hand, I see their problem. If, at the end of the day, he stays… how do you explain to the population – both the Libyan and the western populations – that you went through all of this and you leave them with Gaddafi? But on the other hand, I think they were right, as I have said, to get rid of the air defence systems. Most people forget that even in Iraq, by the time the air and no-fly zone was established, the air defence system had been removed through the first Gulf war. All of them had been neutralised.
They were right to stop the guns and the tanks from getting to Benghazi. The problem they have now is the sense that they've crossed a line and are now part of the civil war and fighting on one side of the civil war.
I noticed that line being crossed just before the bombs started falling.
KA: ... But here, I will tell you… you will find this interesting, because I said this to Samantha Powers [the academic and liberal interventionist in the White House] and she said: "How can one say a civil war? One side is so weak. The other side is so powerful." I just listened. I kept saying, but who told you in civil war, the sides have to be evenly matched? It never starts like that. But it is a civil war, and they are now perceived as having been sucked in, and where does it stop? How far… how much deeper do you get in? And if it drags on, how patient will the population be and the parliaments be? This is a problem.