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Fire and forget

July 1, 2011

Despite the existence of an arms embargo on Libya, France seems to have started arming the rebels. The hope is to hasten Gaddafi’s fall through pressure from the West. One cannot help but think that Paris is getting nervous after Italian calls for a ceasefire and growing doubts in the United States and wants a quick end to a conflict which has so far proven frustrating to international air power.

By now the arguments against dumping more arms into Libya, besides the fact that it’s almost certainly a violation of the arms embargo, are pretty familiar. One might think France would want to allay these concerns, but instead, it’s delivering them in about the least accountable way possible: literally dropping them out of planes.

Col. Mahmoud Mosbah, the leader of the military council in the western town of Rujban, acknowledged that weapons were dropped by parachute near his town over a three-day period this month. The drops, all at night and totaling perhaps 36 tons, included mostly light weapons and ammunition, he said. He complained that rebels from the neighboring city of Zintan had taken all the weapons and were not sharing them with fighters in other areas.

“The information I have is that the arms were for all the Nafusah Mountains,” he said in an interview at a local college, where he and other military leaders announced the defections of dozens of former Qaddafi army officers. The colonel said an intermediary told him on Wednesday that the French government was upset that the weapons were not being properly distributed.

Upset about improper distribution? Well, madames et monsieurs, if your distribution method is just chucking weapons out the back of aircraft into the middle of the mountains and hoping that the notoriously disorganized Libyan rebels do the right thing, that is on you. Naturally, the rebels are not cooperating as a cohesive group and instead the arms are going to whatever rebel commanders get them. This is just the latest short-sighted attempt at a quick fix – naturally, an airborne one. Even if it is in contravention of an arms embargo, it is not like any of the European nations enforcing the no-fly zone that’s supposed to uphold UNSCR 1970 and 1973 are going to enforce it against one of the leading states of the coalition. While collateral damage and UXO are awful consequences of aerial intervention, the potential harm of injecting arms into a disorganized system with no accountability is far greater. Despite the existence of a common enemy, it should already be quite clear the rebels have some issues of their own to sort out. If the rebel commanders become warlords in post-Gaddafi Libya, maybe Paris will regret these sorts of policies. However, so long as France can drop arms in without risking a single soldier, there seems little reason not to continue.

So, while the coalition in Libya starts to get more desperate, Assad has continued butchering his own people. From what recent reports say, it seems the US government is accepting the reality that Assad probably is not going to go. Whether or not it is a good idea to officially endorse reform under the auspices of the Ba’ath Party is another question. What’s worth reiterating is the utter failure of Libya as demonstrative compellence, as LFC noted. Part of the selling of Libya included the idea that if America, or the West generally, did not stand up in Libya, it would send a signal of moral weakness to dictators around the region, leaving the cause of reform and democracy exsanguinating in the Arab street. This is why I insisted the elevation of signal and willpower was a bipartisan characteristic of much of modern foreign policy debate. Instead of scaring dictators into accepting reform, Libya gave virtually everyone a free hand to confront local crises as they saw fit. That includes the regime in Syria. As this article, supposedly drawing on an anonymous State Department source, points out:

… Libya killed all chances of more aggressive US action in Syria. Had the crisis in Libya not happened, the United States and NATO may have thought about making a move in Syria to teach it a lesson. Unless a major breakthrough happens in Libya (Qaddafi dies or the rebels win), the United States and NATO will not lift a finger on Syria.

If I were a dictator on the other side of the Arab world, I would be quite pleased to see NATO tied up there, whether I was a Ba’athist worried about JDAMs arriving on my doorstep or a Gulf monarch looking to score some PR points and keep the Westerners from looking at my country’s own abysmal human rights record. Whatever “lesson” America taught dictators generally, it was lost when it became immediately obvious America would have less resources and attention to turn elsewhere. For those against intervention in the revolutions shaking the Middle East and North Africa, the silver lining of Libya is that it has kept the United States and NATO from intervening in a part of the region where regime change would be much harder to effect and the consequences of instability would affect not merely Northern Africa, but essentially every major power in the Middle East. The obvious and immediate proximity of Israel, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan makes Syria dangerous, but Assad’s regime also figures prominently in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states it supports through its effects on their enemies and allies.

The downside of the ad hoc approach in the Middle East is that while pragmatic to a degree, it has been accompanied by a fire and forget approach to regional crises. Unfortunately, while the world of will and idea has the luxury of forgetting, the material realities of politics do not. Even if the atrocity exhibition that is media coverage of Syria consistently steals the headlines, hearts, and minds of the Arab world, the resources of NATO and the US will remain in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. So what we see instead are a series of endless quick fixes, whether they entail sanctions and denunciations, decapitation strikes, or arms drops. Before we even have time to see the results of these moves, we are on to some other headline and some other attempt to respond to it – all in pursuit of sending the right message and displaying the proper symbols. We might do well to recall the words of Schopenhauer’s essay warning against the exaltation of “honor”: “honor has not to be won, it must only not be lost.” America and Western powers are exerting no end of energy to improve their reputations, for benefits which may evaporate once the day-to-day politics and clashes of interest in the region re-emerge. Eventually, the euphoria and urgency of the revolutionary moments will fade, and outside powers will need to take stock of their resources and interests – it would be better if we tried to balance our responses to the present with the commitments we have made in the past and the consequences of our actions in the future.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2011 12:44 pm

    Despite its failure as signaling, I am a bit more favorably inclined to the NATO op in Libya than you are. But I agree that dropping weapons by parachute is not great.

    Schopenhauer — an interesting touch. I had to read a bit of The World as Will and Idea in (IR!) grad school. (Odd syllabus, in some ways; the prof has retired.) You probably won’t get that at Columbia (if I may take the name of your blog literally), or probably anywhere else for that matter.

    • July 2, 2011 1:32 pm

      I mean, there were certainly humanitarian operations that could be conducted, but outside of Misrata it’s hard to justify anything the intervention is accomplishing as far as humanitarian goals are concerned.

      Come to think of it, Schopenhauer might not be somebody we want to listen to in the context of anything regarding the Arab Spring. He did, after all, offer his opera glasses to the troops manning the barricades in Frankfurt (can’t get much more reactionary than that).

      (And heh, don’t take it literally, it’s a reference to the poetic name for the continent, not the school.)

      • July 2, 2011 8:53 pm

        “a reference to the poetic name for the continent”

        As in ‘Columbia the gem of the ocean’? Or is there some other reference that’s eluding me? And while I’m on dumb questions, what is the statue & scene depicted in the blog’s masthead?

        As for Schopenhauer, my impression is that he was rather reactionary, though I didn’t know that anecdote. The only part of WWI that really stuck w/ me is his hymn to the glories of silence (which I liked).

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