The other day I conceded that the US-led intervention in Libya had worked better than I had imagined. Rebels are pushing back out of Benghazi and retaking areas that were once loyalist strongholds. So far the intervention has achieved its aims: Benghazi is no longer threatened and the people of eastern Libya are safe from what was once an imminent onslaught and massacre. Yet the mission has, predictably, evolved into a regime change operation aimed at ending Qaddafi’s rule. To say that the mission has worked better than I suspected is not to be confused with a reversal of my previous position. I still maintain that intervention in Libya was an unwise move. It saved Benghazi, true, but it leads to many more unknowns.
In response to my comparison to the Cote d’Ivoire, a commenter on this site wrote me that:
There is no cause for celebration as Gaddafi is still in power. US started a business that she needs to finish. The situation Cote d’Ivore requires US intervention at least indirectly or give support to AU forces to intervene before the civil war breaks out. While as we can see US has no interest to protect and humanitarian purposes are never the reasons for any intervention, no possible intervention is expected in Cote d’Ivoire.
The Cote d’Ivoire has a leader that is marginalizing and brutalizing half of the population (and has attacked French and African Union peace keepers). Rebel forces are pushing to dispose of the leader. Thanks to French intervention and failed peace initiatives earlier in the decade, the rebel momentum has stalled, creating a bloody stalemate that has caused the death of nearly 500 civilians and the creation of over 1 million refugees. The French intervention in was a mirror image of the Libya intervention: rebel forces were on a seemingly unstoppable march towards the capital until they were halted by the superior French military power. The French intervened on one side of a civil war, but not definitively enough to topple the other side. The result is a new round of security council debates aiming at punishing the very same president that the French forces saved in 2002.
I bring up Cote d’Ivoire for two reasons. First, if Libya is indeed seen as a precedent, then the Obama administration and its European allies should be lining up to intervene in the West African country. If there are no American interests at stake in Libya or Cote d’Ivoire, what makes Libyans more deserving of American intervention? In Obama’s speech last night – in which he explained his rationale for the Libyan war – the President noted that the United States does not have the luxury of standing by while atrocities occur – thus not answering that question:
To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.
There were no strategic interests at stake in Libya: for Obama, the intervention was a decision to take a moral stand. Some perhaps argue (as Obama does) that victory for Qaddafi would instigate further violence by other Arab dictators in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, for example. Readers of this blog know that I find this argument to be completely without merit; in fact, I think that the intervention has demonstrated the inability of the United States to intervene elsewhere.
To return to the comment made above: I think we can celebrate because the people of Benghazi were saved – even though I opposed intervention. Secondly, there was no strategic interest in Libya, just as there is none in Cote d’Ivoire. Of course, the one is part of a greater regional uprising while the other is mired in a conflict that is limited to the country. My fear is that picking and choosing what countries to intervene in (while continuing to support regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and other brutal dictators) the United States is both revealing that it is unable to ensure freedom for the people of the world and demonstrating a diplomatic hypocrisy which could negatively influence the view of the country.
In a sense, though, the commenter was very correct in warning that there is nothing to celebrate yet in Libya. After the fall of Qaddafi, the initial jubilation and celebration will predictably give way to confusion and hardship as the country attempts to instantaneously create the social, political and economic institutions that Qaddafi tore down over the last 40 years. While Qaddafi is clearly a bad man, some are beginning to question the wisdom of bringing Libya into certain social and economic ruin, albeit without Qaddafi. As Stephen Walt warns us, the “cost vs. benefits calculations won’t be possible for some time.”
Indeed, in a recent brief, Exum and Hosford, warn that the probability of a bloody stalemate means that the United States and the world should be ready to accept the status quo antebellum. The authors are wary that without direct, American military engagement that was not authorized by the Security Council and will unlikely by passed by Congress, Obama could find himself propping up a dangerous stalemate, partitioning the country and pushing the North African country further down into the abyss. If a partitioned Libya is created and persists, Exum and Hosford warn, it will force a longterm military burden on the United States that will cost much in American gold and Libyan men. Of course, reverting to the situation pre-intervention would do some serious harm to the reputation of interventionists and the United States as well.
While I celebrate that Benghazi was saved, I worry as the international coalition leads Libya into a dark unknown. Will the international community begin refusing intervention to those in similar situations, or will the ‘success’ of Libya lead to a strengthened liberal-interventionist/hawkish neo-conservative alliance that brings the United States into unwanted interventions? Will Libya be able to survive life without Qaddafi and be able to create some governmental infrastructure out of a country decimated by Libyan and western bombs? Will the United States be forced to play an expensive role in Libya after the (expanded) mission is over, or will Obama be able to end America’s part in this war? As Walt says, “I hope I’m wrong about a lot of this:”
As readers know, I’ve questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I’ve thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I’m still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn’t embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don’t understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I’m wrong about a lot of this. We’ll see.
Photo from Newsable