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Once more into Tripoli?

February 23, 2011

I’ll do my best to avoid the symptoms of sudden-onset expertism that will doubtlessly begin plaguing coverage of horrific events in Libya. Similarly, this post may already be outdated by the time I finish it. Contrary to the paeans to nonviolent revolutionary change which have emerged, Gaddafi’s maniacal narcissism and the dissolution of the government’s restraint and monopoly on force have brought about brutal repression and now what looks like civil war. Egypt and Tunisia demonstrated the power for nonviolent change when the military’s interests aligned with the opposition.

So, with every service of the Libyan military fractured, dueling militias and Gaddafi’s internal security forces and sub-Saharan mercenaries firing on unarmed protesters, and hundreds, if over a thousand dead, it’s not surprising that new calls are rising from commentators on both the left and the right for a stronger intervention than mere words. Because events are moving quickly and the President would be correct in thinking his strategy of patience and quiet diplomacy has worked well so far, it’s unlikely that Obama will intervene.

However, were the US to begin an intervention, it’s difficult to see where it would stop. Daniel Larison correctly points out that no-fly zones and commitments to preventing mass killing or authoritarian rule degrade into mission creep or merely protracted civil war and human suffering. Attempts to manage a foreign civil war from the air rarely ends the conflict: ultimately, the “man on the scene with the gun” matters more. So, once the US has its aircraft overhead, it may find itself, compelled, as it did in Kosovo, to threaten land intervention, or, as in Bosnia, supervising the work of a multilateral peacekeeping force. Or, if we do hold firm to a solely aerial involvement, we might orbit helplessly as splintered army units clash and Gaddafi’s revolutionary militias cut down mobs. So do we start flying in Reapers to strike critical targets? Special forces? Peacekeepers? The Marines?

A truly limited intervention in Libya would essentially be a punitive expedition, leaving some smoking craters and aircraft debris strewn across the desert. But nobody is really talking about that. They’re talking about committing US forces to help bring about Libyan regime change. I doubt any advocate of intervention will, satisfied with the news that Libya’s extant air force is enjoying a tropical vacation in Malta, will tell happily announce to Libya’s publics and the world, “Well, Gaddafi isn’t shooting at you with planes, so we’ll just stop here, let us know when the ground war and the democide is over,” and relax. Perhaps the US could participate in a wider coalition to stabilize Libya, but it needs a strategy to delimit its extent in what is, ultimately, not a critical region for its interests. Multilateralism, more than being useful for legitimating our actions, must temper the speed and scope of our entanglement in Libya’s civil war.

Libya is not a vital strategic interest, as Newshoggers’ Dave Anderson rightly notes. Dedicated humanitarian intervention makes sense when its consequences will obviously affect the US (as in the Caribbean and Latin America) or there is a clear way to significantly ameliorate the suffering without serious risk of entanglement and overstretch. The US may have the biggest guns in the Mediterranean, but Libya’s civil war does not obviously threaten sea lines of communication (unless history repeats itself and the coast descends into piracy), or provide a forward presence for a rival superpower. Bahrain’s tumult, in the Persian Gulf, home of US military bases, and a potential flash point for Saudi-Iranian rivalry, directly affects US interests far more than does violence in Libya.

That said, there is a large group of wealthy, powerful states who will face significant and direct consequences from Libyan instability – the European Union. Because Libyan energy matters more to Europe than the United States, and the refugees from this violence will be coming ashore in Italy and France, the Europeans, rather than the Americans, should be taking the lead on stabilizing Libya. Despite the bluster about American decline and the rise of the European Union, the Europeans may still lack the collective willpower to undertake an operation to mitigate or stabilize Libya’s violence. While France is leading in the calls for a Libyan no-fly zone, Britain appears reluctant. As I’ve written about earlier, Britain’s looser ties to continental European issues may be an impediment for anything stronger than a foreign policy of the least-common denominator. If the EU were serious about an all-weather foreign policy, it would be prepared to intervene in Libya if necessary. Building civil society, foreign investment and promoting democracy are just part of a foreign policy, not a substitute. Such a foreign policy cannot cope with crisis, or violent exception to the status quo.

Granted, the US is partly at fault for European inaction, since it tends to suppress anything smacking of a truly independent European defense policy for fear of it subverting NATO. Because the US is the single most powerful NATO member, this impedes European security policy, since the continental Europeans cannot truly act alone. The United States need not be responsible for providing all the Mediterranean’s geopolitical public goods. Europe ought to take a more active role in its own neighborhood, including in security issues. Just because Russia is not poised to invade does not mean Europe has no real security interests to worry about. Eventually, the US may want to direct its interests eastward. Europe’s vital interests, not America’s, are in the Mediterranean. In my last post, I argued the revolutionary tumult provided a compelling opportunity to re-evaluate US interests. That should go for Europeans as well, who certainly need a strategy for the chaos erupting so close to home.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 24, 2011 4:35 pm

    I especially like your last paragraph here (and in particular the first sentence of it).

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