I had a lively debate this morning that must have made Edward Said cringe where ever he is now. The conversation stemmed from the responsibility and right of the west to intervene in Libya and, as I wrote yesterday, I am against intervention, but support a more restrained course of action that supports the Libyan people. Personally I believe that international intervention (presumably led by the United States) has far too many potential consequences that outweigh the potential gains. Certainly the situation in Libya, where Qaddafi has imported over 4,000 mercenaries, is brutal and should be condemned most harshly. Despite the atrocious acts of the Libyan government and its hired guns (though heartless, the murders are not technically genocide), there are other means to support the Libyan population and undermine Qaddafi without engaging in direct military action.
Before delving deeper into possible alternatives, it would be helpful to discuss the possible consequences of direct intervention.
- It seems to be assumed that any intervention would be led by the United States – as Larison notes, French enforcement of a no fly zone is unlikely and Italian participation is dubious at best. Moreover, with only one aircraft carrier in the area, it is unlikely that the US would be able to pull off such a mission. Such limitations and question marks of the western countries make a NATO intervention highly unlikely.
- If an intervention were to avoid ground troops and rely mainly on air power – as in Serbia – could and probably would lead to many disastrous errors. With many Libyan military officers defecting to the rebellion, there is every possibility that a western pilot could bomb the wrong side. From the Arabist:
Maybe aircraft flying threateningly overhead would be enough to deter regime assaults. But if it doesn’t, then even a small number of tanks and artillery pieces can make it very difficult for defenders to hold ground, and we don’t know if rebel armor is operational. An intervention force would probably need to be prepared to strike ground targets, like the Bosnian Serb artillery positions hit in 2005, to provide any sort of guarantee for the defenders of rebel-held cities. This could lead to any number of terrible errors — it might be extremely difficult to judge from the air, from context, whether any given vehicle column were moving to attack a rebel-held city, or moving to its relief.
- Bali and Abu Rish note also that foreign intervention could possibly close up an important route for fleeing Libyan refugees and would also block other defecting members of the air force – in addition to the four that have already fled.
- Foreign intervention also risks hijacking what has been an organic national movement and would give Qaddafi more ammunition in his rants about foreign influence. While many in the military have defected due to Qaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries, foreign planes in Libyan airspace may have the opposite effect, convincing many potential defectors to remain with the regime. Moreover, the Qaddafi regime seems to be on its last legs with opposition forces moving west and surrounding the capital, meaning that foreign intervention now would be a little late in the game. A late intervention would rob the Libyan people of the success stemming from their sacrifices.
From the Arabist
Any foreign incursion into Libyan land or airspace risks tainting the rebellion as foreign-backed. Most battalions in the Libyan military do not appear to have committed to either side. Some units may see international aircraft overhead, conclude the jig is up for Qaddafi, and commit to the rebels. But that’s an optimistic view. Libyans troops in uncommitted battalions might be very isolated at this point. Their perceptions of what is going on right now might be very different from the international narrative. Some officers who deeply despise Qaddafi might nonetheless fight against any transgression of national sovereignty — perhaps calculating, as Iraqi officers did after 2003, that participating in a national struggle was a better investment in their political futures than “collaboration.”
From Bali and Abu Rish:
At a time when the regime appears to be crumbling from within, as a result of the courageous mobilization of its own people, to engage in an eleventh hour intervention runs the very serious risk of depriving the Libyan people of their control over the hard-won transition they have initiated. To rebrand the Libyan uprising with the last minute trappings of international liberation (read: “Made in the West”) would do a serious disservice to the achievements of the protesters.
- After debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American people do not support another American (or American-led) intervention. Rasmussen reveals that only 17% of Americans support intervention in the Arab world while a staggering 67% believe that the US should stay out of the affairs of other countries. The growing isolationism due to recent intervention failures demonstrates that American intervention in Libya could prove to be a suicide tactic for a president gearing up for the 2012 elections.
- A ground invasion by Egypt is highly due to the busy schedule of the Egyptian army, now running the country. Moreover, such a move would potentially lead to the same consequences of foreign intervention.
- An assassination attempt on Qaddafi would be both dubious legally and difficult to pull off. It is difficult to ensure the success of areal bombing (see Libya ca. 1986) and a special forces operation would surely fail considering the lack of intelligence available.
Essentially, the west seems to be lacking both the will and the capacity to provide a helpful intervention. While the argument of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP) can certainly be brought up, the first responsibility of the international community is to do no harm and “there is very little evidence that direct intervention in the Libyan case could meet this test.” Foreign intervention: would inevitably destroy civilian infrastructure, has the potential to undermine the rebellion, could prevent the weakening of the regime by preventing defections and giving credence to the thus far hollow Qaddafi accusation of foreign interference. Even if the west could and wanted to intervene, there are too many risks involved.
In the same conversation this morning I was accused of not thinking of potential solutions to the conflict in Libya. Of course, if one were to read my last post, it would be clear that I have proposed potential actions to support an end to the bloodshed. Rejecting foreign bombing of Tripoli is not synonymous with inaction. But to clarify, I think the following course of action should be taken by the entire international community:
- Boarders should be open to ensure the passage of refugees attempting to flee the country while doing all possible to prevent the import of more mercenaries to prob Qaddafi. While this would be difficult to prevent, Egyptian and Tunisian forces are capable of monitoring their borders and the French military contingent in Chad could be redeployed to the border. Safe passage out of the country must be ensured and the presence of forces on three borders could act as a deterrent for mercenaries.
- Humanitarian goods must be imported, through Egypt and Tunisia, to help the people survive; medical equipment is particularly important.
- The international community and individual countries must freeze the assets of Qaddafi and those who surround him.
- The United Nations must pass a resolution that demands the cessation of all violence and refer Qaddafi to the ICC for investigation into war crimes.
- All countries must severe all military ties with Libya and cancel any existing contracts. The international community should push for an embargo of all military equipment to the country.
In my discussion this morning, I was told that that the world is required to intervene due to the RtoP. I was also accused of ignoring the successes of international intervention; the most often examples being Kosovo and Sierra Leon. As my knowledge of Sierra Leon is light, I defer on that subject, yet reliance on Kosovo and the RtoP could easily been seen as folly. The two are certainly interconnected as the latter was developed in an effort to justify the former – as there was no previous legal justification for NATO action. And should one really use the mafia-esque Kosovo as a example of successful intervention?
Photo from LibCom