I have finally found some time to jot some notes down about the implementation of a no fly zone (NFZ) in Libya and, unfortunately, the very same questions that were being asked before the US and Britain started bombing Libyan targets are still lingering. As the Arab League backs away from the intervention and both the United States and Qaddafi are prepared for a long conflict (remember when Obama said “days, not weeks“?) For many, the deployment of the American military in yet another Middle Eastern country is leaving them with a disturbing taste of deja vu. Personally, I am left with several questions and one major fear about the intervention and a lingering concern for the rest of the Middle East. Let’s start with the questions.
- Who is leading this intervention and who will take the lead if it prolongs? As Ross Douthat says in the New York Times, this is a very liberal intervention for Obama, meaning that it is a welcomed departure from the Bush, unilateral style of doing-whatever-the-hell we-want. It had the backing of the United Nations and the Arab League, Britain and France (and Lebanon) were pushing for the UN vote, and there was talk of Arab forces joining the intervention. Leading up to the actual decision, this did not seem like an American initiative – which, after Iraq, was a welcomed sight. Yet, in the initial bombing of air defense targets, it was reported that 110 tomahawk cruise missiles (priced at a nice $569,000 – FY1999 – a piece) were fired from ships and submarines covering the Mediterranean coast – one submarine was British and the rest were American. Even though French jets are taking the lead in patrolling the skies, who will Libya fall on if it becomes a long-term burden? As of right now, the west seems unwilling to do anything more than ensure the survival of the insurgents, meaning that it is possible that the NFZ will result in a prolonged and expensive stalemate in which the west is propping up one side. If this turns out to be the case, who is going to foot the bill? America certainly does not want to.
- What is the specific goal of the intervention? The UN Security Council resolution states that the world will take whatever means necessary to protect the Libyan people. While sounding all nice and good, it remains very vague as to what America et al. is legally allowed to do and it certainly does not state a clear goal. It seems as though, under its UN mandate, the west could enter Libya and do anything from only shooting down jets to attacking Libyan forces to assassinating Qaddafi. Of course, despite the freedom of the resolution, there is a real balance to each course of action that will involve serious costs. A simple NFZ might not topple Qaddafi and lead to a split and violent Libya while a regime-change operation will provoke Arab claims of imperialism and specters of the Iraq occupation (or is this over-learning lessons of Iraq?). On the one hand, it seems as though the only way to please the western domestic crowd is by a quick in-an-out mission that ensures the safety of the Libyan people without much cost to the west – perhaps a quick assassination of Qaddafi? On the other hand, the Arab population seems to prefer a prolonged western mission of support, allowing the Libyan insurgents to take care of business themselves. Undoubtedly, that would involve a long western mission – something that is not very attractive to the west. So the question remains: what are we doing and how? Is the west trying to topple Qaddafi or are we just making sure Libyan people are not killed? The answer to that question is incredibly important and holds implications for the level of western military involvement and commitment. The Arabist thinks that this intervention is completely about regime change – while an assassination of Qaddafi is not being considered at the moment, it might become a possibility in the near future.
- Will the United States escalate its actions? So the United States helps implement a NFZ, but Qaddafi remains in power and is still attacking and killing Libyans with his vast supply of tanks. Libya is now mired in a stalemate with the country divided into a insurgent-held east and a Qaddafi-led west. Pockets of insurgency are being kept alive (see: Misrata, outside of Tripoli) only by western support, meaning that an end to the western mission is the equivalent to an end of the insurgency and the success of an ever-defiant Qaddafi. Does the US increase the intensity of the intervention to ensure the success of the insurgency? Would the United States go as far as sending troops into Libya to ensure a positive outcome (Dunn speculates that they are already there)? Considering that many are seeing this intervention as setting precedents in international intervention, Obama and other leaders cannot afford to see Qaddafi endure and, as Saddam demonstrated, it is not difficult for a crazy leader to survive under a NFZ. The answer to this question is obviously linked to the one above.
- What is the worst acceptable outcome? The best outcome seems obvious: international intervention is over by the end of the week, Qaddafi falls and the insurgents take Tripoli while throwing roses at the feet of Obama. A more difficult scenario to imagine is the one that is terrible for the west and for Libya, but still falls in the realm of acceptability for the west. I am sure this includes the survival of Qaddafi and perhaps the division of the country – though there is no way of knowing whether the rebels would accept such an outcome (or if the west would). At what point can the west leave? Moreover, what happens after Qaddafi falls? Who will take his place and will they be friendly to the United States? As Fallows and others note, there seems to have been a lack of decision-makers asking “What happens then?” Is Kosovo II the best we can hope for?
With those questions completely unanswered, I am left fearing that the result of this intervention will not be a quick capitulation by Qaddafi. I hope, of course, that I am wrong and that Qaddafi-loyalists realize the inevitability of defeat and defect increasingly putting more pressure on the crazy Libyan leader. And that is certainly a possibility. However, I suspect that unless there is a successful assassination of Qaddafi, the west will learn the lesson it should have learned in Iraq a decade ago: NFZs do not ensure regime change or immediate success. I envision the intervention doing no more than bringing the conflict to a very fragile balance that, in effect, divides the country in two. A NFZ will not end this conflict. As I mentioned earlier and as Roger Cohen argues, the west should be prepared for a more direct and effective intervention if it wants to see a rapid end to the war. Cohen says “Be Ruthless, or Stay Out.” I would have preferred the latter and I am sure that Obama will find out that he can’t get out without being the former.
Now my lingering concern is that it seems as though there is no way of winning Libya. If the intervention plays out like I imagine, the United States will be stuck protecting the insurgency for the longterm. However, if Qaddafi folds quickly and the insurgency is able to take Tripoli and install a democratic government that respects human rights and the will of the people (see: best possible outcome), there are regional consequences. A successful intervention sets precedents. By intervening in Libya, Obama and the west have essentially promised a similar action to the demonstrators in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria (as well as all across the globe). By making such a stand, the west is saying that it will not allow dictators to kill protesters. While Obama certainly does not mind telling the protesters killed by the Iranian regime that he is “with” them and would probably send a similar message to those being shot in Syria, there has been a suspicious lack of sound bites for the dying civilians in countries allied with the US. A successful and rapid intervention would give those protesting everywhere from Bahrain to Syria hope that the United States and the west would protect their right to freedom as well. Marc Lynch writes:
The intervention is a high-stakes gamble. If it succeeds quickly, and Qaddafi’s regime crumbles as key figures jump ship in the face of its certain demise, then it could reverse the flagging fortunes of the Arab uprisings. Like the first Security Council resolution on Libya, it could send a powerful message that the use of brutal repression makes regime survival less rather than more likely. It would put real meat on the bones of the “Responsibility to Protect” and help create a new international norm. And it could align the U.S. and the international community with al-Jazeera and the aspirations of the Arab protest movement. I have heard from many protest leaders from other Arab countries that success in Libya would galvanize their efforts, and failure might crush their hopes.
Yet what Lynch does not mention is that the US is incredibly unlikely to support demonstrations against regimes that protect vital American interests. It is incredibly difficult to imagine the US doing more than wagging its finger at Bahrain – which houses the entire American fifth fleet, Saudi Arabia – which holds the world’s largest oil reserves or Yemen – who is a strategic partner in the fight against Al Qaeda. While international intervention in Libya may be seen as a united stand against despots killing their own people, it is a precedent that could be broken very quickly. The countries in the Gulf are not blinking as they commit atrocities against demonstrators. As the bodies pile up in US-armed, US allies, will those who called for intervention in Libya call for intervention in Saudi Arabia, knowing that invoking the newly beefed up “Responsibility to Protect” will cut America off from 25% of the world’s oil? Standing up for the people in Libya is not the same as standing up for the people in Saudi Arabia.
In other words, a quick and successful intervention in Libya is – naturally – good for Libya, but it might inspire hope in other peaceful demonstrators that the US will respond likewise when in fact it probably will now. In a way successful intervention mirrors Iraq during the First Gulf War when the United States encouraged Iraqis to rise up against the government. They did with the expectation that the US would aid them, but the US left and they were slaughtered. A successful intervention may simply be raising the expectations of other protests movements too high.
Photo from The National