Several thousand marines are headed for the Mediterranean. Their officers say that they are available for "flexible" action. One Colonel says the Marine Expeditionary Unit
"is able to perform a wide variety of missions, from humanitarian and relief efforts to combat missions."
The line between humanitarian relief efforts and combat while protecting those efforts is blurry. If these troops go into Libya, the U.S. and the marine officers will unilaterally decide where to draw that line. It's obvious that they will want to protect themselves. They no doubt have been heavily trained to do so, and so they will respond to any provocation at all with a great deal of force. They will tend to unleash battle. Think how our domestic police officers are over-reacting and justifying excessive force in so many instances. Marines are unlikely to be any less fussy if they encounter any resistance at all, real, imagined, or concocted.
The marines threaten Gaddafi with a two-front war if they land. Up to now, he was able to retreat in orderly fashion and draw the rebels into an extended position open to counter-attack. He now faces the possibility of attack at his rear or along a long front. Obama and the marines can make a case for an humanitarian effort (supported by marine firepower) at any of a number of locations. This complicates Gaddafi's tactics.
Obama and Hillary Clinton are considering arming the rebels. Obama has not ruled this out. Neither has William Hague, the British foreign secretary. Presumably, they are thinking in terms of heavier arms and vehicles. This would be a major step since it involves logistics, training, and supplies. Some Western forces would be required in such efforts. This is another threat against Gaddafi and another possible escalation as this war unfolds. There have been earlier reports that Egypt was arming rebels with small arms.
The Italian foreign ministry warns that arming the rebels may divide the "international community". This may occur because such action goes beyond the U.N. mandate in its Resolution 1973. A critical part of the resolution calls for enforcing an arms embargo on Libya.
Another critical part of that document
"Authorizes Member States…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory…"
The war to date makes clear that there is and has been no line drawn between protecting civilians against attack and attacking Gaddafi's forces. The air attacks against Gaddafi's forces have taken place as support for the rebel advances, among other things. Any advance of Gaddafi's forces can be construed by the U.N. as a threat to civilians and populated areas.
The shape of U.N. "humanitarianism" is strange. Any and all air attacks in support of this mission are allowable, but no force on the ground is permissible. That is, the U.N. construes air power as defensive in nature and as a safe means that does not itself take civilian lives. Neither assumption is factual. It construes ground forces as somehow either offensive or an unsatisfactory means of advancing its objective, although ground forces might resolve the situation expeditiously and with the least loss of lives.
Why does the U.N. make this distinction? The U.N. is attempting to save civilian lives in a civil war. At the same time, it doesn't want to undermine the principle upon which it itself is built, namely, that the nation-state is sovereign within its territory. Its members do not want to open the door too widely to U.N. invasions of their countries. But the U.N. also supports the principle of self-determination and consent of the governed to their government. This principle comes into conflict with the notion that the State has a given territory over which it is sovereign. The U.N. supports contradictory principles.
Self-determination and consent of the governed raise questions. When a rebellion occurs and a challenge to the government's legitimacy, who is to decide whether that State shall be divided? Who is to decide if the rebellious group speaks for all the people or a part? Who is to decide if the existing government lacks consent or is not legitimate?
My opinion, often expressed, is that the only peaceful method of answering these questions and implementing consent of the governed is to do away with the principle that a State or government's territorial borders are sacrosanct. If a group of people wishes to opt out of their government and remain living where they are, their right to do so peacefully should be recognized. Their freedom of association gives rise to such a right. The right to opt out of a government (or by extension to associate and establish governing methods of one's own) is the right to be governed by consent. Many associations can co-exist within what are now the borders of many States, and these associations can provide whatever beneficial services that those in these associations want. They can replace existing territorial governments.
Rebellious groups that use violence in order to replace one territorial government by another do not resolve these questions. Whether or not successful revolutions that alter governments improve the well-being of the people is another matter entirely. They may and they may not. Even if they improve matters, my point is that this is not the end of the story; and it won't be the end of the story. Groups of people will disagree with even an improved government. They will want to opt out or alter their relations with that government. We need to recognize that any government that by its borders controls everyone within those borders whether they like it or not is an illegitimate government that lacks consent.
In the Libyan situation, we are very far from these ideals of course. The rebels have taken up arms. Gaddafi is determined to crush the rebellion. There is no peaceful approach being used by anyone at present, including the U.N.
The U.N. cannot save lives without supporting the rebel side. In fact, many of its members have already announced that Gaddafi is no longer a legitimate leader. Therefore, the U.N. and its member states are active war-making powers, no matter what their professed goal is. They have at present limited their war-making, but there is nothing to stop them from enlarging it. They have made themselves or are trying to make themselves the determiner of what the shape of the Libyan state shall be, who shall not be its ruler, and, to some extent, what groups or persons shall have the predominant role in establishing and shaping a new state and possibly leading it. None of this is a peaceful approach to the question of consent. None of it resolves the basic contradiction between the principle of the sovereign territorial state and the freedoms of association and consent to one's government. If the U.N. has its way and its chosen protagonists win, perhaps at best some vastly diluted version of consent will come in at a later date in some sort of referendum vote on a new constitution. A new domestic rivalry and a new politics will then ensue. The same old problems will crop up again.
This kind of voting outcome papers over the basic rights of freedom of association and freedom to opt out of a government. These imply the right to fashion one's own government with consent on a non-territorial basis, if one wishes. They do not imply being given a yes or no choice on a new constitution for a new territorial state.