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Once more into Tripoli? (II)

February 26, 2011

The ongoing civil war in Libya continues, and calls for intervention are escalating. The desire is understandable. The US government and its commentators have been engaging in self-flagellation for the perceived failure to capitalize on these momentous historical events, and added to this pressure to act has been the moral outrage of what are hopefully the Gaddafi regime’s violent death throes. I previously addressed this theme here, but it’s worth contemplating a few other points.

The first question is, why are we intervening in Libya? Is it merely to show what side we are on? In that case, there are a number of actions of varying degrees of efficacy which could limit our involvement while still demonstrating support to the anti-Gaddafi factions. One would be to contact friendly Libyan neighbors and try to organize safe havens for refugees, including material support where practical. Another, less effective option would be to impose sanctions. Now, if imposed on the general populace, these could be disastrous for the Libyan people, so freezes and sanctions targeting the Libyan leadership would make more sense. In general, however, sanctions are basically techniques for expressing disapproval and rarely accomplish much on their own.

So, why be cautious about no-fly zones or further intervention?  Because, quite frankly, there is nobody who could legitimize our intervention. It’s pretty difficult to gauge Libyan opinion at this point, but there has been little expression of approval for Western intervention. On the other hand, there is sizable support from the rest of the Arab world, particularly intellectuals and NGOs to the east, calling for a no-fly zone and sanctions. Libyans, on the other hand, seem to want reporters more than air support.

One would imagine that any further intervention would only trigger more discontent if a no-fly zone creeps into bombing, or  that into ground intervention . We can’t demonstrate what side we’re on, in other words, if the side we’re trying to show solidarity with doesn’t want us there.

What if our mission is to ameliorate the violence in Libya and end the civil war? In this case, then a no-fly zone will simply not be decisive – either the Libyan opposition’s ground presence is strong enough to defeat Gaddafi’s internal security, militias, and mercenaries, or it is not. In Iraq, Saddam’s air force was overwhelmingly loyal. In Libya, it is not. This reduces the payoff and increases the risks of a no-fly zone. First, because some of the Libyan air force is siding with the opposition, its ability to systematically suppress rebellion is limited. Secondly, how does a no-fly zone deal with defecting Libyan pilots? We do not want to shoot down defecting military aircraft. A no-fly zone will have limited benefits for the Libyan people, and potentially negative consequences for the US and Europe if Libyans do not want one.

Libya’s former justice minister is now claiming an interim government is being set up in liberated Benghazi, and this government has affirmed commitment to Tripoli’s role as the capital and blamed Gaddafi alone for his crimes – presumably exculpating a large number of bureaucrats and other allies of the regime who have defected. Here is where things get complicated: if this regime requests our intervention, does it constitute legitimacy? After all, the “street” may not be so happy about Gaddafi’s ex-henchmen running the interim government. Are there alternate centers of power we can reach out to? The military is extremely weak, so the US should recognize it will be a while before it can recognize who its reliable partners would be. However, a no-fly zone would be probably the least intrusive intervention possible, but will need coördination with defecting Libyan pilots to prevent foreign governments for cleaning house for Gaddafi.

In his article for Foreign Policy, Hussein Ibish acknowledges the many risks and drawbacks of a no-fly zone but still insists the West intervene:

Symbolic actions such as freezing assets and economic sanctions are already overdue. A no-fly zone, in spite of its obvious limitations, should be organized as quickly as possible. Its creation will imply a commitment to protect the Libyan people from serious, sustained mass atrocities, and if it comes to that, the international community should be prepared to live up to its responsibilities — in spite of the present risks. The dangers of escalation shouldn’t be overblown: The regime’s unpopularity, its loss of control of much of the country and growing military, bureaucratic, and diplomatic defections suggest that Western boots on the ground could well be unnecessary.

Well, sanctions are already underway. But justifying the no-fly zone as a commitment to protecting the Libyan people from all kinds of atrocities is a problem for exactly the reason Ibish describes: it becomes an open-ended. Quite different from flying planes overhead, even moving to a Bosnia or Kosovo-style campaign of bombardment requires careful coordination with ground forces to prevent mass collateral damage, particularly since much of the fighting is occurring in Libya’s urban areas by militia units, not an ideal situation for aircraft to deal with.

Thus, even moving to bombing campaign requires a reliable partner on the ground, and so too would any form of ground intervention. The legitimacy, and indeed the necessary ties to Libyans, for these actions, cannot come from the Middle Eastern intellectuals and NGOs that urge intervention, or from Westerners eager to reaffirm their moral virtue with military might. This is the Libyan people’s war, and they do not need much Western help to win it, it seems. As Umair Jamil writes, the presence of foreign troops might not stir such happy feelings in Libyans, who have heaped scorn on Gaddafi of his use of foreign mercenaries. He is also correct to note that Western cries to save the Libyans evoke more than a whiff of Orientalist thinking.

So, what could be done? At the least, the US, EU, and friendly states neighboring Libya can set up sanctuaries for refugees, and potentially block the entry of additional mercenary troops into Libya. Air forces from these countries could also attempt to enforce a Libyan no-fly zone, although they should try to establish some sort of informal IFF protocol to avoid blowing defecting or anti-Gaddafi forces out of the sky. However, there are important caveats. The US cannot bear the burden of such an effort. European states, much closer, and much more involved, should not think they can buck-pass their neighborhood problem to the United States. Nor should NATO stretch its charter to make this event a “NATO matter,” this does not concern NATO’s interests. The US can use its diplomatic leverage to assemble a broader coalition, but given our limited resources and the increasingly unpredictable Middle Eastern security environment, it would be folly to entangle ourselves in a state where our strategic interests are not really at stake. Finally, no country should intervene with ground troops unless we can clearly ascertain Libyan desire and support for such an action amongst a broad spectrum of opposition groups, and unless those groups we choose to supports are ones we really want to see in power. Do we want Gaddafi’s ex-ministers involved? His rump military? Other groups? The civil war may make it seem easy to choose a side, but the post-war political environment will be more fractious and complicated, and nobody should be eager to insert foreign troops into the midst of that process.


Unlike other Western interventions in the region, humanitarian action in Libya would place the United States and the West on the side of the aspirations of millions of ordinary Arabs — and on the right side of history and the wave of democratization sweeping the region.

Remain vigilant, readers.

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