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Orwellian intervention? International opinion and the captive hegemon

March 15, 2011

Since I posted my critique of aerial intervention, Gaddafi’s counteroffensive into east Libya has put the rebellion on the retreat. With rebels losing their grip on critical petroleum infrastructure and facing assault from armored vehicles and aircraft, the drumbeat for intervention has increased. Although many agree that a no-fly zone is unlikely to prove very useful, commentators made much of announcements by the Arab League, the OIC, and the Gulf Cooperation Council in favor of a no-fly zone over Libya.

However, as Marc Lynch points out, it is important not to overstate the degree of support for the no-fly zone, and it incredibly important not to read Arab support for a no-fly zone as an open-ended mandate for intervention by foreign powers. This is critical because a no-fly zone would never have and never will turn the tide against Gaddafi. Wars are won on the ground, especially civil wars for direct control of a government.

News photos are chock-full of ragtag rebels struggling to fend of Gaddafi’s air force by firing DShK out of pick-up trucks, or like this intrepid Libyan, firing at fighter jets with an FN FAL from an office chair. This might seem to show that a no-fly zone would do much good. It will not, however. While Gaddafi can inflict casualties on civilians and ground forces from aircraft, it should be obvious from decades of counterinsurgency wars that you cannot hold territory from the air. The balance of ground forces, the “man on the scene with the gun,” as J.C. Wylie would put it, will decide the final outcome of the Libyan civil war.

This is both why a no-fly zone, and even a bombing campaign associated with it, is unlikely to succeed. Yet undertaking a no-fly zone, let alone a bombing campaign, implies committing Western forces to rebel victory – or else it is pointless, an expenditure of millions so Westerners can say they were on the “right side of history” and gave it a “good try,” and then possibly embroil themselves in a multi-year long containment of Libya that may drag intervention on further, with inconclusive and unsatisfying results.

However, Libyans do not want ground troops, nor, it seems, do many other Arabs. There is no quick-fix for winning the civil war. Decapitation is difficult without ground presence, and even then its success is questionable. What about the solution of arming the rebels? Well, for one, there is a UN arms embargo on Libya, and arming them would contravene the legal mandate, which should give at least give some of the liberal internationalist hawks pause, if not the rest of the commentariat. There are other reasons to be skeptical of arms transfers, though. One is that dumping large numbers of weapons into a civil war where we know very little about what kind of government the opposition will create and how well it can form a governing coalition if it wins might not create a fantastic strategic outcome. Said arms might also end up in the hands of anti-US groups, and since Libyans from the east have occasionally shown up in Iraq, it would not be surprising if weapons sent there did as well. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine more weapons turning the tide if there are not trained crews to operate them, and effective leaders to command their use. If there are significant organizational deficits on the rebel side, more weapons may not accomplish much at all.

Returning to the question of Arab and European support for US intervention, should these developments tip the balance of costs and risks in favor of intervention? Some analysts contrast American reluctance with Arab and European support for intervention and seemed astonished that America could maintain its caution and conservatism in the face of seemingly overwhelming foreign support. The explanation for this is quite obvious, however: the country whose people would be paying for and dying in a military intervention has much more reason to reject intervention than those who are free-riding off its action. Britain, France, and other European states might trumpet their commitment to the Libyan people, but their air forces lack the capability to maintain a no-fly zone themselves. The Arab states might proclaim their desire to see Gaddafi’s defeat, but none are up to the task of intervening themselves. The GCC’s support of Libyan intervention should not be read as an endorsement of American foreign policy, but a means to an end. They dislike Gaddafi and the crisis’s effect on regional geopolitics, and would like him gone – just on someone else’s dime, with someone else’s military. Meanwhile, what kind of efforts is the GCC willing to commit its own military forces to? Playing the role of the Holy Alliance and quashing Bahraini dissent, with the added bonus of signaling resolve against Iran. As the saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself. Foreign powers trust America to handle Libya because none consider it vital enough to intervene on their own, but many would like to see the US clean up the neighborhood and partake in the moral self-congratulation. The GCC’s seeming hypocrisy is really just a rational understanding and prioritizing of interests.

The United States is a hegemon, but to the degree it misidentifies its own interests with those of its allies and clients, and assumes them for the sake of credibility, prestige, and image, it is a captive hegemon. Other states have agendas of their own, yet we too often treat statements as mere referendums on US foreign policy, without subjecting either US interests in the action or the motives for foreign support of it to serious scrutiny. It reduces foreign policy to maintaining a certain kind of imperial prestige, and makes international image, rather than strategic interest, the driving concern. It brings to mind this classic piece of Orwell:

To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing-no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn’t be frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do. There was only one alternative. I shoved the cartridges into the magazine and lay down on the road to get a better aim.

People ask what the point of having a world-spanning military and posturing as the leader of the world is if we are unwilling to “take the lead” in whatever regional crisis emerges. In doing so, however, they risk stepping back into that imperial frame of mind Orwell writes from. I mention this not simply to tar American actions as imperialism in a purely polemic sense, but to demonstrate how the burdens of authority, leadership, and power give each imperial venture a life of its own, and put the hegemon’s foreign policy less in its own hands.

We may not come to Libya intending to “shoot the elephant” and expand beyond a no-fly zone. Yet we go in the eager eyes of an international community expecting results, and commit to solving a problem. Fear of failure or the inadequacy of our method of first choice, however, brings us to undertake actions we may not have thought necessary or likely, so as not to lose face, or lose credibility, or show lack of resolve.

In the end, we end up hoping the atrocities we wanted to stop were bad enough to justify the anger at our actions and the costs we incur. The debate about intervention in Libya is symptomatic of a public sphere losing touch with a concrete idea of American national interests, and turning instead to the phantom pursuit of favorable image and prestige.

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