Notes on Libya

How much longer can Qaddafi hold on?

As each day passes, more and more analysts are predicting that the Qaddafi regime is in its last hours. In liberated parts of the country – where government loyalists and the army have abandoned – opposition forces have started setting up an interim government; in Baida opposition forces have seized tanks and missiles and preparing an attack on the capital; the Libyan ambassador to the UN voted in favor of sanctions against his government. With the end of Qaddafi seeming more like an inevitability, news on Libya is streaming in faster than I can type. Here are some notes/thoughts:

  • The Libyan ambassador to the UN gave a passionate speech to the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council imploring the institutions to ‘save’ the country. With so many members of the government deserting the Gaddafi, it seems as though the regime is becoming increasingly isolated internationally and domestically:

The Libyan ambassador to the United Nations made an impassioned appeal Friday to the U.N. Security Council, calling on the U.N.’s most powerful body to adopt a strong resolution and “save Libya.” His speech ended with him embracing his deputy, who had defected from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s camp earlier this week, and both men sobbing as the U.N. Secretary-General and other ambassadors came over to embrace them and shake their hands.

I sometimes get accused of being a hawk because I have argued that resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns have represented our best chance to salvage bad situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but my experiences in both countries also taught me that a) force has its limits and b) we should all be very cautious about committing U.S. troops to combat operations in the first place. I’m horrified to read liberal interventionists continue to suggest the ease with which humanitarian crises and regional conflicts can be solved by the application of military power. To speak so glibly of such things reflects a very immature understanding of the limits of force and the difficulties and complexities of contemporary military operations.

  • Hussein Ibish argues that it is in American interests to support the Libyan people in overthrowing Qaddafi. While the US has very few immediate interests in the country, being perceived as a supporter of the revolution may give the US some influence in whatever comes after. Moreover, in an evolving Arab world, the US will need to position itself securely on the side of progress if it wants to remain a factor. The Obama administration supported UN sanctions and imposed unilateral sanctions as well:

The United States in particular has a powerful strategic interest in not being perceived as the guardian of the status quo, addicted to a regional order that has become anathema to most of the people of the Middle East. It is very much in the American national interest to place itself, and more importantly be perceived as, on the side of the Arab peoples as they rise up to insist on reform, accountability and inclusivity…

This government is going to fall. It strongly behooves the United States to be perceived as having helped to play a positive role in bringing about its demise. Not only will that provide our country a great deal of credit in Libya and in the Arab world at large, especially among the ordinary citizens, it would also maximize the ability of the United States to deal positively with a post-Qaddafi order and to have some degree of influence in what comes next.

  • Considering the calls for intervention and a strong response, Andrew Exum wonders what President Obama is actually thinking. It seems clear that the President is not planning on any type of military intervention (phew!) and that Obama plans to support to revolution through diplomatic, economic and rhetorical means only. As I and many others have also said, this is a wise move. I agree with Ibish’s point above, that the US has longterm interest in supporting the Arab people in their fight for liberation from dictators, but American interests are very much limited in the country. Thus, US military intervention is both unwise and unlikely. Exum gives us a look at the speech that Obama would like to make in response to such calls, but can’t:

“Look, I have been alternately horrified by the behavior of the Libyan regime over the past few days and inspired by the courage of the Libyan people. But if you’re asking me what we the United States is going to do about the situation, the answer is very little. Most Libyans reject the idea of external intervention by western powers, and we’re just fine with that since we have few interests in Libya. You can’t expect the United States to take an active role in responding to every humanitarian crisis or regional conflict worldwide unless you take a ridiculously broad conception of our interests, and Americans are increasingly unwilling to fund a military and aid program that could respond to each and every flare-up around the world. You cannot, in other words, have a steak-and-lobster foreign policy on a budget more suitable for McDonalds. But if I’m wrong and you guys want to cut social security and Medicaid to increase funding for USAID, the Department of Defense and the State Department, let me know. As for the rising price of oil? Look, folks, it’s a global market. I can ask our Saudi friends to increase their output, but honestly, we Americans enjoy relatively cheap gasoline since we hardly tax the stuff at all compared with our industrial partners and competitors. I know that comes as little solace to a suburban mom dealing with national infrastructure built around the internal combustion engine, but that’s not going to change anytime soon, and I can hardly tax Americans less, so we’re stuck. You’re just going to have to adjust your consumption as best as possible and save elsewhere.”

Photo from Hussain Abdul Hussain

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