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Intervention as substitute for policy

March 23, 2011

Thanks to a brief pause in blogging here, there’s a good number of excellent posts on Libya and the intervention that I won’t attempt to rewrite. The most recent crop of good reads on Libya (and there has been such a deluge of good writing on the subject I apologize for those posts I will inevitably overlook here) come from Ink Spots’ Gulliver, on the end, ways, and means of intervention, from the Faceless Bureaucrat at Kings of War, and Brendan O’Neill’s devastating critique in the Australian.

There are arguments to be made for the Libyan no-fly zone, and many intelligent people who I respect have come out in favor of this intervention. However, the intervention itself has been a solution in search of a problem to solve. To summarize extremely briefly, each of the proposed rationales for the Libyan intervention, at least from the perspective of the United States, have serious faults.

The first justification is the need to avoid a massive humanitarian catastrophe. The Faceless Bureaucrat’s post takes the position that a humanitarian intervention is a contradiction in terms, but the concept, however paradoxical, retains enormous political potency. Consider these posts establishing Libya as the fulfillment of R2P and the solemn commitment of “never again.”

Let’s be clear about one thing up front: what is happening in Libya is awful, but the scale of the atrocities committed and their potential to expand pales in comparison to what occurred in Darfur or Rwanda. To argue that there exists the same moral imperative to stop genocide in Libya is completely misleading, serving both to distort what is actually occurring in Libya and what genocide actually means. Consider that Rwanda lost around a fifth of its population in its genocide. The loss of Libyan lives in the civil war, while tragic, is absolutely not on the same scale. Some advocates of intervention have argued that if Benghazi fell, a mass genocide would have taken place in Libya.

Let us consider, however, that what would have occurred in Benghazi would have probably been awful, brutal, street fighting, but it would not have been ethnic cleansing or genocide. The systematic elimination of entire portions of the population in the context of the Libyan civil war is extremely difficult to fathom. Unlike Rwanda, which has a dense population where the ethnic groups were mixed, conflict in Libya does not have a distinctly ethnic advantage, and the political groups fighting live in a series of relatively disparate cities across the Libyan coast. Quite simply, Gaddafi probably does not have enough loyalists in the east to conduct a mass slaughter, and while he might be able to use ground forces to reduce rebel forces, brutally suppress demonstrators and assassinate opponents, it is unlikely what would occur would constitute a genocide. It would more closely resemble the Carthaginian counterinsurgency tactics of Russia in Chechnya or Sri Lanka in its Tamil regions. Quite simply, the geopolitical context of the Libyan civil war makes the kind of mass slaughter R2P advocates discuss extremely difficult.

Not only is the scale of violence some intervention advocates are invoking implausible, so too is the notion that outside powers can effectively prevent mass slaughter from the air, or that the intervention is effectively designed for such a goal in the first place. The Libyan air force, lacking serious bombing capabilities, was never going to be able to drop enough ordnance to create a major share of civilian casualties. Fighter aircraft and combat helicopters are far better for intimidation than they are for mass slaughter. The majority of casualties in this war will come from small arms and artillery, not aircraft. Considering the coalition has now rendered the Libyan air force combat ineffective, the intervention should be over if we only care about the casualties combat aircraft inflict anyway.

But the intervention was never really about protecting human life above all, although R2P and the ghosts of Rwanda hovering over the liberal foreign policy community certainly provided strong legitimation. The NFZ was not simply about shooting down aircraft used against civilians, it was about destroying Libya’s aerial capability, period. It went beyond the scope of humanitarian action and civilian protection by seeking to tip the battlefield balance in the civil war, and it did not choose the tools that would be most effective in protecting civilians. Instead, the US, France, and UK chose to do what rich NATO countries are very, very good at: achieving air supremacy and destroying the enemy air force and its air defense infrastructure and other targets with precision strikes.

It was not the best way to protect civilians, and it was not intended to simply protect civilians. In large part, it stemmed from a desire to “do something” about Libya. Yet this isn’t a satisfactory explanation for Libyan intervention on its own. Most advocates of Libyan intervention really do believe genuine US and Western interests are at stake. However, subjected to scrutiny, most are either illusory or weak relative to the risks and opportunity costs of intervention.

Galrahn, at Information Dissemination, astutely argued the intervention in Libya is the first real test of Obama’s cooperative National Security Strategy. Indeed, the US desire to contribute its unique capabilities – particularly the ability to deliver enormous amounts of striking power from offshore – to an allied force. Why? Because the US needs to prove its willingness to take the concerns of its allies, in this case France and the UK, seriously, through committing itself to multilateral expeditions on issues of shared interests. Yet as Gulliver has pointed out in his criticism of the NSS, this is somewhat circular. When having allies is itself a shared interest, then the US ends up undertaking actions for the sake of maintaining positive relations with its allies. However, just because the US acts in areas where only its allies interests, and not its own, are at stake, hardly means the reverse will be true. Many of our allies have regionally limited interests, and will not act outside their regional interests in a significant way, and many also simply cannot field the capabilities to have global power projection useful in assisting the US outside their own areas of influence even if they felt obligated to. So it makes little sense to pursue a strategy of coöperation if those shared values are not actually shared.

Does the US have an interest in removing Gaddafi? It does, but the US has a lot of interests. It also has an interest in seeing any number of odious regimes succumb to more pleasant, reliable, or at least telegenic partners. That said, not all interests are equal, or merit revisionism. We must weigh the benefits of Gaddafi against the costs involved, and consider the means at our disposal to actually pursuing such a goal. If we cannot remove Gaddafi at a tolerable cost with the intervention as is, then it is not worth it, even assuming Gaddafi is a high-priority enough interest to merit removal in the first place.

Why would Gaddafi be? After all, even in his most obnoxious and violent international forays, the US did not feel he merited more than an airstrike, and dropped regime change or punitive action when that proved ineffective. The US also clashed with Libya over freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Sidra, but now Libya has no effective air force and a piddling navy. It would be a greater danger to sea lines of communication if Gaddafi fell and Libya returned to being a pirate coast.

Some commentators have argued that Gaddafi would direct his efforts towards vengeance if he prevailed in the civil war. Juan Cole, in his defense of the Libyan intervention:

A resurgent Qaddafi in Libya with petroleum billions at his disposal would likely attempt to undermine the democratic experiments in Tunisia and Egypt, blighting the lives of millions.

This is sheer alarmism. Even assuming Libya does not develop an anti-regime insurgency, as Steven Metz predicts in the event of regime victory, and spend most of his oil revenues maintaining his grip against it, Libya is unlikely to seriously endanger its neighbors. Let’s consider Libya’s previous military history under Gaddafi. Libya’s already attempted to destabilize the Egyptian government, first with protest marches and espionage, and then with military raids. Egypt promptly trounced the Libyans and stopped from invading the country after other Arab leaders calmed Sadat. Libya’s aid to Idi Amin during its conflict with Tanzania also resulted in defeat, as did Libya’s war with Chad, which culminated in humiliating defeat.

All in all, it’s quite hard to see how Libya could destabilize the new governments of its Arab neighbors. The Tunisian and Egyptian militaries have had decades of Western support, training and equipment. Egypt’s in particular, is vastly superior to Libya’s. If Gaddafi really wants to hold on to power, he would be suicidal or idiotic to clash with either state. Consider Cole’s argument again in the context of the large number of defected Libyan soldiers and the threat of Gaddafi destabilizing the region is truly unlikely.

A more convincing argument has come from the possibility that Gaddafi will return to his habits of funding terrorists to launch revenge attacks on the West and his neighbors. This is possible, but the potency of Libyan terror is probably far less than it was during Gaddafi’s heyday. The truly potent groups, capable of striking at the Western powers which he worked with before, are gone. Black September, the IRA, and the Red Army Faction and other allies like the Stasi will not help him now. While Gaddafi has apparently funded Filipino revolutionaries, including the infamous MILF, his attempts to recruit Maoris, Aboriginies have not exactly panned out. His support of FARC, another extant secular-left terror group, is unlikely to pose a serious challenge to the US. As for international Islamist terror, the US and al Qaeda, along with various Libyan Islamist groups, are on the same side. The only serious problem that seems likely might be support of anarchist terrorist groups in other Mediterranean states, but their limited power hardly seems to merit regime change.

Another strong influence, I suspect, is the desire to put a pro-American tilt on the mass political uprisings sweeping the Middle East. This desire is understandable, as it must be frustrating for Western policymakers to feel caught in the tides of crisis and unable to plan ahead, but there is little substantive linkage between Libya and the rest of events in the Middle East. While some commentators have argued doing the right thing in Libya will change Arab perceptions of American power in the Middle East, this seems unlikely. The Arab League desires intervention to a limited extent, and this may be in part out of an attempt to placate its own populations. But for the US, is toppling Gaddafi going to make up for decades of support for pro-Western autocrats? No, it probably will not. Gaddafi was never a US client, and was an active opponent. Meanwhile, the actual US-associated autocrats in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are doing just what they’ve done for years. This is not to say Arabs will always resent the US, as some imply, only to note that thinking Libya will solve the US image problem as long as the Gulf states and Yemens remain firmly against their own peoples’ democratic aspirations with tacit US approval is a fallacy.

A final argument is the idea of credibility. If the US does not do something to support a group that wants US support, then suddenly other world leaders will start worrying if the US will help them. This argument simply does not hold. For one, no world leader worth their salt would think the US “failure” to support one of hundreds of rebel groups that would love foreign help makes them any less safe. I doubt the leaders of Taiwan or the Baltic states or even the Gulf states are afraid that if they were say, invaded, the US would not come to help them because it refused to stop Gaddafi. Indeed, the US is in greater danger of enabling recklessness on the part of its allies. By taking up burdens it has no substantive geopolitical interest in carrying, the US encourages other countries to become more adventurous, because they will be confident of US backing. Georgia in 2008 is a demonstration of what happens when leaders believe US credibility can translate into US credulity. Also important to note is that despite the invasion of Georgia, US credibility emerged in workable shape. Ultimately, US credibility comes down to its capacity and willpower to intervene, and each time the US pursues an intervention outside of its interests, it actually reduces its credibility to fulfill security commitments to its real allies.

All this said, the current intervention, as it stands, is highly unlikely to displace Gaddafi from power. Even assuming the US did not quietly withdraw from its involvement in Libya now that it has handed the operation over to NATO, it could not deliver victory to the rebels under its current parameters. Libyan forces are mostly disorganized, poorly-equipped, and poorly trained. Air support, particularly without a ground contingent to coördinate actual close air support, cannot compensate for ground forces incapable of  taking and holding ground in the face of superior force. Territorial control wins civil war, not having the best toys. As Patrick Porter points out, the appeal of the “technological sublime” often clouds this reality.

The handover to NATO makes the situation very problematic for the rebels indeed. While I submit it was a wise choice for the US compared with shouldering the burden of intervention itself, leaving command to NATO will probably mean more uncertainty about what the intervention is supposed to achieve. The French have already recognized the rebels as Libya’s legitimate sovereign government and want to decapitate the Gaddafi regime. Their motives stem from great power prestige, and perhaps, more cynically, domestic politics, a desire to obscure or compensate for the loss of a pro-French autocrat in Tunisia, and the opportunity to retain French influence abroad. Italy, however, would very much like for its former colony to quiet down, whoever is in charge, so it will resume exporting oil to Italians, and not refugees to its shores. Germany, which abstained from the UNSC vote, will not even take part in NATO’s Mediterranean operations. If this unlikely coalition is to achieve regime change, it will not only need to overcome the limits of an offshore policy for regime change, but its own internal divisions. So much, once again, for the myth of a unified foreign policy. Not even in its own backyard can Europe come to agreement on how to use military force.

So what comes next from Libya, assuming things stay as they are? Without being overly optimistic or pessimistic about Libyan ground strength, what comes next is likely the outcome that many Arab states fear the most, a de facto division of Libya into parallel governments in the west and east. This will emerge not out of any cynical Western plan to partition Libya for its oil, as conspiracy mongers speculated, but because of the battlefield conditions that prevail. With Western air support, Gaddafi may not be able to crush the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, since any advance south of the Gulf of Sidra would be easier pickings for coalition aircraft and easier for Libyan rebels to engage. Meanwhile, the rebels probably would lack the combat strength to project an offensive of their own into Tripoli, which they failed to do even when most of the country was under their control. It might be some time before Libyan rebels gained the strength to break out of the east, and hopefully this would be after a stalemate, and not a protracted conflict of attrition which merely extended the bloodshed of civil war.

The intervention in Libya has, particularly for the US, been a solution in search of the right problem. It is a defense against an improbable genocide, a mission to support allies in pursuit of a circular National Security Strategy, a misguided attempt to influence the region and preserve US image. Rather than serving to further US policy, it is serving as a stopgap while the US tries to figure out what its policy and aims in Libya actually are. Perhaps this would be affordable, bearable, even acceptable in a quieter international geopolitical situation. Perhaps, viewed in its own right, it is still a good and worthy thing to do. But intervention in Libya does not occur in some abstract legal or deontological context, or even merely in the context of Libya. Like all interventions and foreign relations for a hegemonic superpower, it occurs in the context of everything else, a world of many commitments of higher priority and greater cost. Libya may not be Iraq or Afghanistan, but its greater worthiness or lesser cost do not erase the strain these two conflicts have and will continue to impose on American foreign policy. World politics is too chaotic to avoid making up some of your strategy while you go along, of course. But given the number of constraints and challenges the US already faces, it is unacceptable for the US to continue acting first and thinking its risks, commitments, responsibilities and interests through afterward. We can impose a NFZ and bomb Libya, of course, but military capability and warfare should stem from sound policy decisions, not substitute for their absence.

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