I have said time and again that the intervention in Libya is unwise considering the lack of national interest at stake. There is no oil, military base, no large ex-pat population, Libya is not an ally, nor is it central to any American policies. Marc Lynch argues that, taken out of context, Libya has no strategic value for the United States; where its value lies is in the greater story of the Arab revolutions. Meaning that if the west allowed Qaddafi to successfully brutalize all opponents and their supporters, it would essentially give other Arab regimes the green light to act in a similar fashion. Thus, for Lynch – who has “many, many reservations” about the intervention in Libya – American and western intervention was necessary to protect the revolutionaries of various other countries:
Libya matters to the United States not for its oil or intrinsic importance, but because it has been a key part of the rapidly evolving transformation of the Arab world. For Arab protestors and regimes alike, Gaddafi’s bloody response to the emerging Libyan protest movement had become a litmus test for the future of the Arab revolution. If Gaddafi succeeded in snuffing out the challenge by force without a meaningful response from the United States, Europe and the international community then that would have been interpreted as a green light for all other leaders to employ similar tactics. The strong international response, first with the tough targeted sanctions package brokered by the United States at the United Nations and now with the military intervention, has the potential to restrain those regimes from unleashing the hounds of war and to encourage the energized citizenry of the region to redouble their efforts to bring about change. This regional context may not be enough to justify the Libya intervention, but I believe it is essential for understanding the logic and stakes of the intervention by the U.S. and its allies.
Andrew Sullivan’s main issue with Lynch’s argument is that it peaceful movements (Egypt, Bahrain and Tunisia) with violent ones (Libya). I think this is true, but does little to negate Lynch’s point. There are massive differences between Egypt and Libya, but intervention is intervention and, if western actions in Arab countries can been seen as a means of deterrence, it hardly matters if it is intervention in a violent or peaceful uprising. The message is still sent.
That being said, I cannot agree with Lynch here. I am sure that the idea of deterrence was used in the rationale for intervention, but I simply cannot believe that states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are worried about American intervention. As the home of the US 5th fleet (Bahrain) and 25% of the world’s oil (Saudi Arabia), these Gulf countries will not see western intervention in Libya as a deterrent. Moreover, if western involvement in Libya stretches into weeks or months other countries will have more of a free pass to attack protesters. With the west bogged down in Libya, no leader or public will want to commit to protecting another group of protesters in another Arab country. In other words, the west is certainly sending a message by intervening in Libya, but unfortunately, it is a message that is likely to be ignored.
Intervention in Libya is a gamble in which the US is betting against the odds. Obama is hoping that other countries will be deterred by western intervention and allow for Egyptian-like change. Yet, Syria, Iran, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia realize the likelihood of another American intervention in an Arab country is unlikely. Moreover, Syria and Iran know that western military actions in either country would be immensely more difficult and costly than Libya (where all important targets are conveniently on the coast) and the US allies in Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are aware that invaluable American interests would be risked and sacrificed by intervention (at least in Bahrain and Saudi). So, if a major reason for intervention is to deter other countries, what happens if the western bluff is called? Although Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen seems about to fall, there has been deaths in every other country and the risk of escalation is real.
What does the United States do if, say, Saudi Arabia does not receive Lynch’s message and murders 100 protesters? 200? 1000?
Photo from Andrew Sullivan