Random Reservations About Libya

By Matthew M. Reed

Two Libya posts in two days? Don’t mind if I do. What follows are my reservations about intervention. Soon I’ll post on why Libya’s future is cause for optimism–and after that we’ll talk about something other than Libya.

Libya is not a “hinge state.” I use that term to describe a state with the potential to positively impact neighbors by example. The population is too small (6.6 million). And for too long it’s been removed from the centers of power that define overarching trends originating from Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, etc. Four decades of mismanagement also make me wonder just how soon Libya can become a major player. Egypt, on the other hand, with a population of 82 million and its history of anchoring the neighborhood, would be a more appropriate recipient of America’s full attention, I feel. I know this is not an “either-or” calculation: the US is doing both. But the stakes are higher in Egypt while our diplomatic, military, and economic investment has been greater in Libya. The Middle East does not pivot on Tripoli. Baghdad and Cairo deserve more.

Mission change jeopardizes future mandates. The bombing campaign began in order to prevent the siege of Benghazi from becoming a massacre. It was successful in this regard. As it stands now, however, NATO is pressing for regime change–a very different mission. I don’t have trouble with this change of strategy–in fact, NATO should have pursued regime change from the beginning. But the Russian and Chinese response to that policy change should worry American decision-makers.

The problem with changing the terms of engagement without changing the terms of the mandate is simple: future mandates may be harder to come by. Russia and China abstained from UN Resolution 1973. They could have vetoed it. They didn’t, however, for fear that a firm stance would reflect poorly on them, and their abstention granted NATO the grounds to protect Libyan civilians. If this expansive interpretation of a UN Resolution is perceived to be the new normal, it’s hard to imagine two of the five members of the UN Security Council gambling on abstentions again. Resolution 1973 does authorize “all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas,” but the language was agreed upon when Benghazi was under siege, not Tripoli.

NATO’s intervention will not prevent bloodshed elsewhere. Autocrats learn from each other but each is convinced they can win the day–maybe even leave a chosen son behind to rule. The problem, however, is that outside powers cannot make an example of a dictator, precisely because each assumes they are special. Everyone should think twice about the message sent by the Libyan intervention: it was not received by other dictators. Assad never thought twice about cracking down in Syria, even though the Libyan example was obvious. In Yemen, President Saleh unleashed his forces accordingly, assuming he could break the revolutionary fever with a cold bucket of lead. Open battles would still be rattling Saa’na if it weren’t for the assassination attempt that almost took his life. Qaddafi’s predicament did not dissuade him. It’s the nature of authoritarianism that leaders become deaf and blind during existential crises. Supposing that Qaddafi’s demise will change calculations made elsewhere is absurd.

America’s reputation will benefit little from intervention. The Libyan intervention will not absolve the United States of actions taken elsewhere in the Middle East. The Palestinian condition will remain a collective sore; (continued) support for autocrats leaves great bitterness, even if it is strategically appropriate in some cases; thousands of American soldiers remain deployed in the region; and uneven democracy promotion still hurts America’s image. For the United States, recent events should underscore just how many issues remain outstanding. And wonks should ask themselves whether solving any one issue–say Israel-Palestine–will really improve America’s status. That said, the intervention may promote a pro-Western bent in Libya since they pleaded for foreign help. But it will not satisfy the broader public who use different yardsticks–plural–to measure American intent.

To summarize: focusing too much on Libya is unfortunately the consequence of committing military force; flexible missions make some major powers anxious; dictators won’t get the message; and there’s no magic pill for rehabilitating America’s image.

Check back soon for some optimism.

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