Premature Calculations

By Matthew M. Reed

Qaddafi’s death has recharged the debate over intervention in Libya. Some express caution or claim we should have intervened sooner and more forcefully. Others are quick to commend the Obama administration and its pursuit of limited war. And a few remain convinced that America’s small investment was a huge mistake. As for the merits of intervention, these remain clear to most: Qaddafi promised to kill as many is it took to reestablish his authority. Western powers took him at his word, invoked the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and intervened after Arab states approved a scheme to protect civilians that ultimately became a campaign for regime change. The costs are coming into focus for the U.S. at least: the Pentagon claimed last week that the total cost was approximately $1.1 billion, although Vice President Biden doubled that estimate when reached for comment on Qaddafi’s demise. “In this case, America spent $2 billion total and didn’t lose a single life,” he told reporters. The rewards could be significant also. Libya without Qaddafi has a better chance of reaching its potential–be it economic, social, or political.

This debate over cost, however, is misguided. The implications are also dangerous.

From Washington’s perspective, the price tag is easily digestible even if you triple or quadruple the cost. But the Libyans paid a much steeper price. Though verification of claims is impossible, Libya’s National Transitional Council believes 30,000 were killed as of September 8, 2011. That number does not take into account the siege of Sirte or the battle for Bani Walid, which saw some of the civil war’s worst violence. The number will surely rise as mass executions and other atrocities are revealed; there are plenty of bullets and vendettas swirling around Libya now–no question about that. Western audiences and media remain largely ignorant of the cost paid by those who fought on the ground the victims caught in between.

For Libya, the costs can be weighed in moral terms as well. There is no doubt that the war to unseat Qaddafi was righteous. But the aftermath is already reflecting poorly on the liberators. Video has emerged showing Qaddafi was humiliated before his death and perhaps sodomized before his execution. Other accounts suggest ethnic groups tied to Qaddafi, like the Tuaregs, are suffering from widespread intimidation and worse. The numbers in prison have surged lately to about 7,000. The revolution is vulnerable as it wrestles with its worst impulses and struggles to control self-interested and well-armed groups. During this period, many more could suffer, as a government is erected, new politics emerge, and security forces are established. The flow of arms beyond Libya might also contribute to other conflicts. Tallying cost now would be premature.

None of these developments will prevent Libya from maturing into a country where the rule of law reigns and it’s probably best if expectations are curbed while the Libyans exorcise demons pent up over four decades. Italy, to name just one example, rebounded after hanging Mussolini’s corpse from a lamppost in 1945. That said, the international community must still draw attention to human rights issues in Libya in order to guide the transition away from traps like mob justice. Libya has already paid dearly for the chance to create a new, stable, and wealthy state–prolonging suffering or creating new internal enemies is counterproductive. The word of the hour must be “inclusion,” which though easy to say, still requires the steady hand of legitimate leaders and the constant use of rhetoric that empowers all sectors of Libyan society. Libya has many advantages; chief among them is access to resources and frozen assets (totaling well over $100 billion). This may be a controversial prescription, but it may be wise at this time for Libyan leaders to take a page out of the Persian Gulf’s playbook–and see just how the monarchies have managed patronage systems that ensure stability. Adopting a similar approach will not automatically retard democracy. Money could very well soak up some of the venom found in Libya’s post-revolutionary politics.

As for low costs, the perceived “cheapness” of intervention has resulted in speculation. Senator John McCain spoke at the World Economic Forum in Jordan shortly after it became clear that NATO’s mission in Libya was ending. His comments were bold: “Now that military operations in Libya are ending, there will be renewed focus on what practical military operations might be considered to protect civilian lives in Syria,” McCain said. “The Assad regime should not consider that it can get away with mass murder. Gadhafi made that mistake and it cost him everything.” $2 billion is not much. As I’ve suggested before, even if intervention in Syria costs more, it might be more appealing because Iran would lose so much if Assad left the scene.

One can easily envision an intervention in Syria that does not go as smoothly. And so the costs of the Libyan intervention may be many times greater than we suspect today, precisely because the example could lead to far costlier conflicts. It would be a mistake to call the Libyan intervention cheap. The cost is not yet clear.

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