Another day in Europe, more mixed messages on just how Western allies in the NATO-led Libyan air intervention plan to end a campaign that has now officially attained “slog” status. Just hours after comments Tuesday from British officials saying they’d accept embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi remaining free in post-war Libya so long as he relinquished power and promised to play no part in the country’s political future, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague reportedly nixed any settlement to the conflict that didn’t deliver Gaddafi to it for trial. That exchange was followed Wednesday by the UK’s announcement it was recognizing Libyan rebel forces as the legitimate government of the country months after intervention partners France, Italy, and the U.S. had made the same move. As part of that, London also said it was immediately expelling all Gaddafi regime diplomats from Britain.
And so continued the one-step-forward-one-step-back evolution of the international community’s Libyan adventure.
In fairness, London’s decision Wednesday to withdraw recognition and expel representatives of Gaddafi’s regime is logical enough that it serves to accentuate how curiously long it took in coming. Despite its earlier position that the UK recognizes “countries, not governments”—a principle the European Union has also struggled to maintain amid the growing number of member states that have designated the rebel leadership as Libya’s government—Wednesday’s move by Britain had become inevitable within its search to find an end to the four month-plus military operation. By joining many of its partners in recognizing the Benghazi-based opposition as the legitimate representatives of Libya, the UK essentially commits itself to the exclusive post-war scenario involving a Libyan government built upon (if not exclusively from) anti-Gaddafi forces.
Without doubt, that was both London’s logic and objective before Wednesday’s announcement as well. Yet in continuing to maintain formal ties with Gaddafi diplomats, the UK had left itself in an untenable position: working for the ouster of the old regime it recognized, while aiding rebels it continued denying official recognition. The move, therefore, simply put the British dossier on Libya in logical order by replacing diplomatic principle with end-game realism.
But its timing also came against the backdrop of Britain and other NATO partners clearly revising positions and watering down demands as they seek to end a military campaign that risks dragging on indefinitely. Such growing pragmatism appears to have been behind London’s decision Tuesday to replicate the change in attitude France signaled earlier in July about what could happen to Gaddafi once the conflict ended. Echoing previous comments of his French opposite, Alain Juppé, British Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledged the UK preferred Gaddafi leave Libya and face trial on ICC charges that he murdered, tortured and brutalized his citizens. However Hague signaled a softening of British position to match that of France by saying Gaddafi’s actual fate will a matter for Libyans themselves to decide after the war. As such, the last vestiges of earlier Western insistence that Gaddafi must leave power and the country gave way to pragmatic (and easier to attain) resignation that main condition for ending the war is for the colonel to relinquish all leadership roles.
The problem with those downwardly revised Western criteria are they exist within an international legal context that makes diplomatic decisions to “eh, never mind” more difficult ease through. According to The Guardian on Wednesday, that is precisely what the ICC sought to remind Hague of by calling Gaddafi’s arrest and trial non-negotiable parts of post-war events. The paper quotes representatives of ICC prosecutors noting they alone have the power to rescind the international warrant for Gaddafi’s arrest, and that signatory nations to the ICC—which include France and Britain—are legally bound to help enforce its decisions. Western nations simply deciding to pretend they no longer see Gaddafi free and at large, therefore, is not a passive solution that’ll stick, warns the ICC.
Court officials similarly noted the United Nations resolution authorizing the international intervention in Libya also binds all actors in Libya to “co-operate fully with and provide any necessary assistance to the (ICC) and the prosecutor”. Meaning, that’s an obligation even non-ICC signatories like the U.S. must respect. Meanwhile, those officials stressed, the only legal manner for granting Gaddafi and two other officials in his regime immunity from the ICC charges require separate UN resolutions authorizing it—an act of amnesty British, French, and American officials are most unlikely to ever be seen getting publicly behind.There’s also another big hurdle facing any ideas about trading Gaddafi virtual exile-at-home in exchange for him leaving power: most opposition forces who’ve seen comrades, friends, and family members die at the hands of Gaddafi’s armed and intelligence forces won’t hear of the colonel being allowed to live out his life comfortably at home just because Western forces were looking for a speedy way to end their involvement in Libya.
All those reasons explain why some observers now suspect Western capitals are now studying a possible Plan B to find a mutually acceptable (if ethically rotten) compromise all sides could accept. That would involve military offensives capable of achieving sufficient advances by rebel troops, and therewith provide NATO leaders the kind of leverage needed to convince Gaddafi he’d be better off giving up power while he can, and accept exile in a country that isn’t a signatory to the ICC.
But even that option involves two major obstacles. First, Western publics that have backed the NATO-led operation as a legitimate effort to oust a bloody, despicable dictator would likely be disgusted at seeing Gaddafi whisked away to safety. That’s a big risk to run for political leaders in the U.S. and Europe already facing seriously soured public opinions over a range of other social and economic issues. Meanwhile, Gaddafi himself has never shown any inclination to cut, run, and negotiate no matter how bad things have gotten for him.
Which all adds up to explain why a possible resolution and end to the Libyan war seems to get more confusing even as greater efforts are made to attain them.