Thursday, March 17, 2011

US mobilizing coalition to strike at Qaddafi

I've been disappointed with how long we've taken to formulate policy on this ("Q: Hey, Barack, what do you think about a no-fly-zone? A: Hold on, gotta get my Final Four picks in first!"), but I suppose it's better late than never. Libyan rebels driving pickup trucks loaded with machine guns at Qaddafi's armored tanks makes for a fairly one-sided fight. I think the U.S. is finally waking up to the reality that complete inaction here may have far-reaching consequences for where the Middle East goes next from these uprisings. Ideally we would have loved for every country to go the way of Egypt or Tunisia, where the autocrats relatively quietly went away. But comments like, "The world is watching," to people like Qaddafi far from pressures them to relent; instead, knowing that they're already internationally isolated and staring at international war crimes one way or another, it motivates them to take their conflicts to the most extreme levels because at that point they have nothing to lose and everything to possibly gain.

Whether a UN Security Council resolution is passed is somewhat questionable to me because of Russia and particularly China's ability to veto, but I think in a situation like this if they can't pass a Security Council resolution, they need to accept that the Security Council, if it once had moral and legal legitimacy for approving international action, is past that point if it is rendered powerless in the face of an international crisis that it is best suited to act on.
In the absence of Security Council consensus, it would make sense for the U.S. to instead take the lead in recruiting NATO countries to join a force capable of striking at Qaddafi. The idea of military intervention into the Middle East understandably makes people wary, but not all military interventions are created equally, and we don't have to make Libya our next quagmire in order to intervene.

I think that in the event of overt Western intervention, be it through air strikes or possibly through eventual NATO troop deployment, if they succeed in deposing Qaddafi, whatever new Libyan government attempts formation needs to be done so with the support and assistance of the West. It wouldn't be through explicit nation-building schemes like we had in Iraq or Afghanistan but moreso through structural support in the form of organizations like the NED that are capable of keeping tabs and providing assistance without jeapordizing sovereignty. Kicking Qaddafi out but then leaving things completely to itself is a risky gambit in the sense that we don't want the legacy of this to be that we armed the next Osama Bin Laden in a Afghanistan-early 1980's sort of redux. Eastern Libya, it's worth noting, sent the highest number of 'freedom fighters' per capita to the mujhadeen in Iraq in the last decade. So the Libyan rebels hold the righteous ground in a fight with Qaddafi, we need to also look at it in a realistic way and realize that the work is not done if Qaddafi goes away. But not acting in any way is a bigger gambit than the mid-'90's Bosnia style intervention that they appear to be going for, with inaction being a likely catalyst for a new wave of anti-Western, anti-American sentiment in the region, emoboldening autocrats by sending the message that the United States and the West are either powerless or unwilling (or both) to act in the face of military aggression, as well as the obvius civilian death tolls that would be accrued if Qaddafi's forces roll into Benghazi unchallengeed.

If done correctly, this intervention could mirror the scale of our intervention against Serbia in the '90's, except that we would be stepping in before a Srebenica type tragedy had to happen. If, as some have theorized, this is just an attempt to draw a veto from Russia and China in order to let us say we're off the hook or that 'we tried,' then it's a new level of dithering fecklessness and perhaps a reflection that the U.S. is willing to fully acquiesce on its leadership responsibilities.

14 comments:

TJE said...

Too little too late?

Ryan Karerat said...

Potentially. If they can get something together before Qaddafi rolls Benghazi, then hopefully no. If they sit on this for another couple of days deliberating, then probably yes.

Ian Thresher said...

Ryan, I am curious as to why you think that the US, or any country for that matter, should get involved in this conflict. I am not trying to criticize your stance, it just seems to me that that kind of world police mentality has gotten the US into many problems over the course of the 20th Century. Do you really think the US should get further enmeshed in a civil war while simultaneously fighting two other wars?

Ryan Karerat said...

A couple of reasons: First off, I think it's a little misguided to categorize this as a traditional civil war. This isn't as much a civil war between equal domestic factions as it is a war between a dictator and his people. And in such instances, the line between civil war and genocide becomes increasingly blurry once those dictators use their force to emerge victorious. I think it's reasonable to have the expectationf of widespread and systematic massacre in the event of Qaddafi's forces routing the rebels in the next day or two.

Another is that I think that I think the kind of sentiment you're expressing represents the fact that we may have over-learned our lesson from Iraq. Nobody wants that, but the spectre of it seems to have people convinced that the answer is qualified isolationism. I think this sort of thinking ignores the reality that geopolitically there is too much interconnectedness to believe that we don't have a stake in what is going on in Libya. I see very real US security interests involved here. Failure to act or the perception that we essentially enabled the Qaddafi rampage would be disastrous for US relations with the Arab people in a time when the slow transition towards more democratic regimes is starting to happen. We can't simply rely on forging relationships with autocrats in order to advance our interests, because the general Arab public is now paying attention and sooner or later will have a chance to participate and help shape policy. Whether it is next month or a couple of years from now, there's a transition that is going on that will make the majority of these autocracies fall at some point. So with that in mind, I think it's crucial for the United States to come out of this being able to say they aided the Arab people rather than watched them die. Failure to do so plants the seed for virulent anti-American policy to take shape in the region as the authoritarian regimes gradually fall, increases the recruiting ability of radical Islamist groups, and in general reduces our standing in a region of critical interest. The Arab League, Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Gulf Cooperation Council have all come forward asking for Western help. We have the moral and legal legitimacy, in my opinion, to act.

I also don't think that this should be viewed through the prism of unilateral American intervention. Being that Libya is in their backyard and that they are facing the prospect of refugees fleeing north to their borders, I think the European Union will need to take the lead in aiding the creation of a post-Qaddafi regime. The situation I see this most analogous to is Bosnia in the early to mid '90's. There was strong cooperation between the NATO countries, and while they too were slow to act, the end result did not involve any form of prolonged US presence.

We would ultimately have to go farther than we did in stopping Milosevic because Qaddafi clearly sees the only endgame for him as either victory or death, but given the relative weakness of the Libyan military, I think if, say, by declaring in the event of a coordinated intervention that those who desert Qaddafi now are promised possible immunity (this is where things get murky) or perhaps are not disqualified from involvement in a post-Qaddafi regime, we may be able to peel off pro-Qaddafi forces and further isolate him. I ultimately don't see a coordinated intervention as overstretching American resources in any discernible way. And I think a failure to act has some serious negative consequences for the U.S. in the long-run. I don't expect everyone to agree, but for me, the bigger risk lies in not acting. It will make enemies of the next generation of Arab leadership, make us look weak by sending the message that we are all talk and no bite, and in general send a message of neutrality and powerlessness in an over-arching conflict in the Middle East that I don't believe we can afford to spectate.

Megan said...

Ryan, I agree with you. We must act for a number of reasons. I am curious, however, why you support helping to overthrow Qaddafi but didn't support going after Saddam Hussein. Is it because Saddam was more brutal and had more resources and therefore removing him cost more money and lives? Is it because we did not have the support of our allies? I agree that there were a number of mistakes made in the re-building of Iraq, but many people say that we should not have taken any action whatsoever there. I'm not criticizing you in any way I just think that you have good insight in foreign policy, and I want to know what exactly you think was so different about Iraq.

ZAG said...

Unless U.S. gets involved within days, Libya is lost, and with it access to its oil (China can only be too pleased). This is a perfect case where a regime is not the only one losing here. Minority tribes have a huge stake in this mess and they will not go down without a bloody fight. They (Libya, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia just to name a few) will do everything in their ability to stay in power, and if they lose, their tribe loses too, who happen to run everything from government agencies to the military. If Saudi Arabia starts shooting at their citizens, will the U.S. do anything about it? Doubtful. Their livelihood is ours.

A no fly-zone will help, but our troops will not touch the sand, and a couple of high powered weapons will do little at this point in Libya. It does make for a great test case though. If U.S. wishes to keep oil flowing AND help a revolution they will need to get way ahead of an uprising instead of entering the game late.

ZAG said...
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Ryan Karerat said...

There are a number of differences I see between this and Iraq. For one, I think it would be remiss to discuss Iraq without acknowledging that we went in under false pretenses. We were there for the WMD's, supposedly, when there never were any. But half the Amazon rainforest's trees have been killed writing books about that, so I'll move on...

Other issues: Yes, Saddam Hussein committed genocide against Iraqis, and was brutally repressive towards both Shias and Kurds. But in terms of justifying the 2003 invasion, I don't see the connection between the two. Saddam's most notable act of genocide occurred in 1987 with the Halabaja massacre. He killed thousands of Kurds with poison gas that year, and it's sickening and deplorable. 1993 following Operation Desert Storm provided another instance of Saddam's aggression against the Kurds, but a NFZ set up by the U.S. and allies provided the necessary cover the Kurdish paramilitary forces needed and they were able to withstand Saddam's aggression.

Fast forward, though, to 2003, and I don't see a situation where the Kurds or Shias of Iraq were in any sort of grave danger. They lived under authoritarian rule, yes, but that in itself did not make their situation any more remarkable than the millions of other citizens in the world who were living under authoritarian rule. With Libya, we have not just a brutal dictator, but a brutal dictator that is promising to massacre his political opponents, with his political opponents representing professional dissidents of some kind, but really just a large swath of the Libyan population.

So I feel like in essence if we're using the Iraq model it's almost like saying our punishment for Qaddafi will be invading Libya 15 years from now, in the name of defending those he is about to brutalize today.

Beyond that, the problem with Iraq is that we can't just say, "Well, we botched the post-invasion strategy, but going in was a good idea." Because the two are inextricably linked. Iraq was not a country where there could really have ever been a quick exit strategy, and overlooking that was a gross miscalculation by the Bush Administration.

Ryan Karerat said...

Qaddafi's army is a (comparatively speaking) small and weaker battalion of 50,000 or so troops. Saddam commanded a force of over 500,000. Iraq is made up by delicate sectarian factions spread out over huge swaths of territory whereas a post-Qaddafi Libya would face the challenge of bringing different tribes together but doesn't really present broader sectarian splits, and the population is also more centralized in key areas along the coast as opposed to the vaster Iraqi landscape. Iraq had no viable opposition movement when we went in which meant post-Saddam there was no infrastructure in place to produce a sovereign Iraq, whereas with Libya there is a tightly organized opposition that is ready to step into power, and thus the challenge for the West is not nation-building but rather providing structural support for the Libyans. And that, of course, also represents the biggest difference between Libya and Iraq: The Libyans are loudly and forcefully struggling for their freedom... whereas in Iraq there was no organic popular movement against Saddam (which is not to say he was their ideal choice of a leader, but the absence of a strong opposition movement is still crucial in that it makes the job of the intervener all the more difficult) and thus we got only hollow promises about us being 'greeted as liberators.'

To sum up, basically, the difference is that Iraq is different from Libya because with Libya there is a much clearer and more immediate exit strategy. The fact that an intervention in Libya would hopefully be a more collaborated NATO or UN Security Council mandated action absolves the U.S. of a sense of individual responsibility on the issue, and thus prevents us from being overburdened by it.

Arguing that invading Iraq was the right decision but the way in which we went about doing so is I think sort of a false choice, because I don't think you can divorce the two. We invaded and tried to re-build Iraq in the way we did because that's what the circumstances and limitations of Iraq made possible: The fact that we were painfully unprepared and unaware of this made it all the worse.

Ian Thresher said...

I can see how it is not an equal civil war, but I feel like it can still be categorized as such. Regardless of the military equality, I disagree that this can be construed as genocide, at least at this point. It is true that Qaddafi’s forces COULD begin to execute rebels and systematically wipe them out after they have surrendered. If this became the case then I would agree with you. But as it is, I think it is a stretch to label the current conflict as a “genocide.” One-sided yes, but “genocide” is a very strong word to use.
I agree with you that the disastrous war in Iraq is still hanging over the way that I think, but I am not sure that is necessarily a bad thing. This may partly be due to ignorance, but in what ways are we interconnected with Libya? I can understand the need for stability, but as I understand it Qaddafi has grown very close with the West over the past decade. It appears we would be risking more in helping the rebels than Qaddafi (though this should not be construed to mean “I think we should help Qaddafi”). You say you see security interests involved, I am curious as to what those interests are (I am not trying to be a pain or say that they do not exist-I am genuinely curious)
I get the argument about being ahead of the curve (as it were) on fostering democracy in the Middle East. I agree that autocratic regimes ultimately end up hurting the US and that a democratic Middle East would be an enormous victory against extremism. Still, as I am sure you know, one of the reasons for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the principal reason that bin Laden gives for attacking America is that we sent in troops to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. In that case, did we have the backing of the government? Yes. Were we fighting against a legitimate enemy? Yes. Did we have international support? Yes. Yet it led to very serious political and strategic problems down the road. Sending in troops to relieve a country of its oppressive dictator does not mean the US will suddenly be appreciated. I guess I think that it is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t type deal and I would rather save American lives than risk them. I am all in favor of supporting the democratic movements, but I think support should be limited to diplomatic solutions as opposed to military ones.

Ian Thresher said...

You go on to say that “Failure to do so plants the seed for virulent anti-American policy to take shape in the region as the authoritarian regimes gradually fall, increases the recruiting ability of radical Islamist groups, and in general reduces our standing in a region of critical interest.” I may be wrong, but I think this is a bit of a leap. If you have any evidence or case studies I would be interested in hearing them. As I see it, no such virulently anti-American policy has emerged from Egypt, and if anything the fall of an autocratic ruler will lead to a political environment (Democracy) that actually erodes the legitimacy of radical Islamist groups.
You then compare the current conflict to the one in the Balkans. I agree there are some similarities, but I do not think the comparison is wholly accurate. In the Balkans, there was a very systematic genocide erupting between ethnic groups. NATO was at first unwilling to get involved, as you note. It was not until the genocide became widely known that NATO decided to act. If Qaddafi was committing genocide I would be in favor of UN and NATO involvement, but the fact is that he is fighting against rebels, not pulling children from their homes and executing them.
You make a strong conclusion, but I disagree that we have more to gain from acting than we do to lose from not acting. What better opportunity is there to show that the U.S. does not have to meddle in each country’s own affairs? We have already made countless enemies with the new generation of Muslim leaders and we have made them enemies for the exact same reasons that proponents want to go into Libya for. We can ill afford to participate just as much as spectate. If a popular uprising gains enough support to topple an autocratic state than I think that is great. But if it does not, how are we making the scenario any better by forcing the country to accept democracy?
Megan, good question.
ZAG, I guess I am not sure why you think if Libya is lost our access to oil goes with it. A) I do not understand what you mean by “lost” and B) Libya gets 80% of its government revenue from oil. There is no way they are going to stop exporting no matter who is in power. How is the U.S. aiding a rebel army, which could not otherwise win, a smart foreign policy goal? We have already seen the disaster of state building and it makes little sense to me that the U.S. should enact policy simply because a slight majority in Libya wants to see it enacted.

Ryan Karerat said...

Gaddafi has already said he will go "house by house" and kill those who opposed them. I'm not arguing that genocide has already happened, but I think we could very well be on the brink of it happening, and I'd much rather act beforehand than afterwards. The small matter of thousands of innocent people's lives hang in the balance. The rebels are not some break-off of the army for the most part... they are ordinary Libyans who are acting out in a plea for basic human rights. Their slaughter is not one we should accept so lightly.

The fact that we waited until AFTER Srebenica to intervene more forcefully in Bosnia is not an argument for staying put for now, in fact I find it to be quite the opposite.

I would also hesitate to say the Gulf War created 'serious strategic and political problems down the road.' Bin Laden has provided many reasons and rationalizations behind 9/11, and our putting a military base in Saudi Arabia as a part of the Gulf War may have been part of it, but their school of Wahabiist thought was so drilled into them that I have a hard time believing that one really led to the other. Bin Laden was an enemy of the royal family, an enemy to the US, and thus was an enemy of the US/Saudi relationship for long before the Gulf War.

The Gulf War was a foreign policy success, an example of how quick and coordinated military action by different Western forces can quickly neutralize an enemy and exit without committing us to anything long-lasting. Getting bogged down in a debate about the Gulf War is itself probably a waste of time, anyways. Analogies are useful and I know I've used them as well, but we also have to remember that new situations call for new solutions, and that trying to read this situation through a lens of past events can be a uselesse exercise: While we want to have learned the right lessons from our foreign policy history, this situation also calls for original thinking and acknowledgement that we are dealing with a completely unique, mostly uncharted and certainly unanalogous issue here in Libya and the Middle East.

As for what case studies I have to support my assertion that failure to act will drum up anti-Americanism, I have none, but only because we are at a truly unique moment right here. It is true, however, that Muslims both here and abroad have mostly turned to anti-Americanism out of anxiety over the wars we have waged in the Middle East that have resulted in the civilian deaths of their Muslim brothers and sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. These Muslims do not support Gaddafi: they are equally anxious about him killing their Muslim brothers and sisters in Libya. Everyone is waiting for the US to step in, and most expect us to do something to help those people. If we don't, we will be perceived as having indirectly aided and abetted in the slaughter of innocent Muslims as well as turning our back on Muslims who were seeking a democratic solution. I worry about what this will do for exacerbating the anxiousness and frustration young Muslims feel about the United States and their role in the Middle East. On the flip side, the image of the United States leading an operation to save Muslim lives is absolute gold in terms of improving our standing in that region and with those people.

Ryan Karerat said...

"As I see it, no such virulently anti-American policy has emerged from Egypt, and if anything the fall of an autocratic ruler will lead to a political environment (Democracy) that actually erodes the legitimacy of radical Islamist groups. "

I completely agree! But in Egypt, we helped usher out Mubarak when the time came, and so while there is still some grudges that are held against us for our years of support for Mubarak, we I think came out on the right side in that one because we sided with the Egyptian people when the time to pick sides came last month. We don't have the same sort of leverage in Libya, obviously, but it is the country most under the microscope right now, the country everyone is most watching to see how the U.S. acts and who they support. My fear is that if we turn our backs, we alienate a generation of Arabs who thought this was their moment, who will then ask themselves what exactly they need to do to earn the support of the US and if doing so is even worth it. And as you said, the fall of an autocratic ruler leading to a democratic political environment will help erode Islamic radicalization... which is why in Libya, where so many of the other pieces are basically there, we can help provide the nudge to get them there.

" What better opportunity is there to show that the U.S. does not have to meddle in each country’s own affairs? We have already made countless enemies with the new generation of Muslim leaders and we have made them enemies for the exact same reasons that proponents want to go into Libya for."

As I mentioned earlier, the Arab League, Organization of Islamic Conference, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Libyan rebeles themselves have all, among others, called for Western intervention. They are ASKING us to meddle! This point cannot be emphasized enough. We should not be comparing this to past instances where we belligerently jumped into issues people wanted us to stay out of.

I've already discussed a bit what I see as our security interests, but to sum up, I think that Libya is a deciding ground in many ways for our standing on this 'Arab Spring,' and we will be judged both by the general Muslim population as well as by foes based on how we act. If we let Gaddafi act unchallenged, we send a message to the young Muslims who believed that if they sought democratic means they could win the support of the U.S. that we do not have their back, furthering the disenchantment that many Muslims feel about the U.S. and thus creating new avenues for Islamic radicalization. This is also in a broader context a challenge of Barack Obama's foreign policy mettle. If the entire world watches as Gaddafi basically takes Obama's words and shoves it down his throat in the form of a defiant destruction of the rebel Libyan forces, it will send a message that the U.S. is weak or unwilling to challenge bellicose tyrants, and in a sense able to be bullied. These are things Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Co. are all going to take and gain from. It would have been one thing for Obama to signal from the beginning that we had a policy of non-involvement, but by dithering on it for so long, he left the door open and thus raised expectations, and thus created openings for the disappointment and defeat that he would have to face if a massacre in Benghazi does happen.

UN Security Council votes in an hour.

Megan said...
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