A main topic on this site over the last few weeks has, of course, been the intervention in Libya. I have been pretty adamant in my opposition to American involvement in the mission (and the mission in general). In short, my opposition stemmed from launching an expensive war in a third Arab country, possible delegitimization of what has been seen throughout the region as an organic, local movement, no guarantee of success, the potential for never-ending mission creep and the creation of a potentially dangerous precedent. To his credit, President Obama has assuaged many of these concerns by the way in which he led the war effort (despite ignoring that whole constitution thing). He forced other countries to lead the effort (though he could have stayed out indefinitely) and backed down after the initial push. By allowing others to take the lead, he minimized the American footprint in Libya as well as costs involved in making such a footprint.
As Nato takes over command of the mission, the Arab world still seems to view the fight against Qaddafi as an Arab one, despite western help (the token role of the UAE and Qatar didn’t hurt) and – although the mission seems to have evolved from a NFZ into one ensuring the success of the rebels and the fall of Qaddafi – there seems as though there is little risk of operational mission-creep (not moving troops into Libya). Moreover, it seems as though the intervention has saved a rebel cause that seemed somewhat lost before western action. From NYT:
Rebel fighters pushed past the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, meeting little resistance as they recaptured two important refineries. By the evening, they had pushed the front line west of Bin Jawwad, according to fighters returning from the front. Emboldened by the retaking of the strategic crossroads city of Ajdabiya on Saturday, the rebels have moved rapidly, taking advantage of what the Qaddafi government has called a “tactical pullback.” There were clashes with government forces overnight near the town of Uqaylah, on the main coastal road to Ras Lanuf, but nothing after that. “There wasn’t resistance,” said Faraj Sheydani, 42, a rebel fighter interviewed on his return from the front. “There was no one in front of us. There’s no fighting.”
Like Sullivan, I have no problem saying that the intervention went far better than I expected. Part of my fear was that the enforcement of a NFZ would simply allow Qaddafi’s armored tanks to roll over a weakened rebel opposition, yet the vague wording of the Security Council resolution that called for “any means necessary” allowed western forces to expand the mission from a NFZ to a no drive zone as well. Missile strikes on Qaddafi’s land army certainly played a massive role in this intervention, not only protecting the rebel stronghold, but also facilitated the rebel counterattack and – more likely than not – encouraged defections by the loyalist army.
As the western backed rebels move in on the strategically important town of Sirt, many can see the fall of Qaddafi in the not-too-distant future. Yet as I admit the success of the intervention (and particularly the American insistence of international leadership) I am still left with two concerns. First, and not as disquieting, is what happens after Qaddafi is removed from power? Who will step in to lead Libya and will the country be able to successfully transition and recover from what is certain to be a long-lasting, deep national wound? These questions are somewhat unrelated to the intervention as they would have been asked if the rebels had succeeded without western help.
Secondly, I wonder about the newly beefed-up Responsibility to Protect and whether this is a universal responsibility or simply one that is enacted where it suits western interests. With my political maturation process being defined in terms such as American occupation, unilateralism, quagmire and exit strategies, I have developed a growing fondness for a more isolationist foreign policy, or at least one that does not require longterm American commitments. This developed concern certainly played into my opposition to the Libyan intervention – after all, leftist American interventionists are not all that different from the neo-conservatives that one can blame for my isolationist streak. Humanitarian intervention can potentially turn into a long and costly affair and there is no guarantee that the next adventure could turn out more like Iraq of the 90s and less like Libya.
Does the intervention in Libya mean that the US and its allies are now required to intervene to save other beleaguered opposition forces facing potential catastrophe, even if this means bogging down the US military? In other words, has a precedent been set or not? Is Responsibility to Protect a doctrine that is applied everywhere. Syria is cracking down on protesters (though Clinton has already ruled out intervention), Bahrain is teaming with the GCC to bring down its peaceful protest movement, and Yemen (though it seems Saleh is soon to be no more) has made a habit of killing innocents. Should the US go in and bomb other governments too?
Cote d’Ivoire is nearing civil war with over 1 million refugees that started because the President altered election requirements, thus eliminating a good portion of the population from public office. The government targeted opposition leaders and massacred 120 people at a peaceful, opposition protest. The insurgents nearly toppled the government in 2002, but were stopped when the west intervened in support of the government. Today, in addition to the 1 million refugees, the non-combatant death count has risen to 462 and the country is on the brink of civil war. The UN security council is debating whether to freeze the assets of President Gbagbo and if there should be a ban on heavy weaponry in the country.
Obviously there are large differences between the situation in Libya and in Cote d’Ivoire (namely, Libya being part of a larger regional uprising), but are the conditions not present in Cote d’Ivoire for a similar western intervention? Before resorting to force in Libya, the international community froze the assets of Qaddafi and imposed an arms embargo on the country – both of these steps are being debated for Cote d’Ivoire. If Libya is a precedent or if it is used to justify the Responsibility to Protect, will the US be sending troops, planes and warships to the coast of Abidjan soon?
Don’t get me wrong. If the United States can intervene in every humanitarian disaster like it did in Libya – that is, limited and with great international involvement – I would support more international action by the US army. Yet the French experience in Cote d’Ivoire (the French have been ‘intervening’ there since 2002) demonstrates that humanitarian action can be potentially disastrous, despite good intentions. We should celebrate the success of the intervention in Libya, in the context of Libya. The US et al. successfully prevented Qaddafi from massacring civilians and rebels in Benghazi and it seems as though the international community will be playing a large role in the end of Qaddafi’s long and terrible run. In Libya, I will gladly admit being wrong about intervention.
Unfortunately, taken in the global context, Libya either acts as a precedent that requires US action on multiple fronts or demonstrates the hypocrisy as America refuses to get involved in the innumerable humanitarian crises across the globe.
Photo from Watch Mojo