What Does Libya Mean for the Region, Part 2

Will intervention in Libya deter other dictators?

Not too long ago, I wrote that – contrary to Obama’s theory – that intervention in Libya will do little to deter other dictators from committing violence against other pro-democracy, peaceful demonstrators. The thought process was simple: America intervenes in Libya, gets bogged down in stalemate and proves to other dictators that it will not/can not intervene in other countries. Secretary of State Clinton and Ambassador to the UN Rice both used the theory of regional deterrence to promote intervention – as has several different liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives. This theory behind the justification of US force is simply that we bomb Qaddafi and other leaders will be hesitant to use force against their populations out of fear of a similar intervention. Unfortunately, US force is likely to promote violence in other countries, rather than deter it. Moreover, as the US becomes more entangled in Libya, it is quickly becoming apparent that Washington doesn’t have the capacity or political will to intervene elsewhere.

While Clinton has already ruled out intervention in Libya (which looks like it is moving closer to civil war), others are calling Obama out for the lack of regional deterrence in America’s actions in Libya. Benjamin Friedman argues against the theory that past credibility matters little when leaders are facing current threats:

Credibility rationales for wars suffer two crippling deficiencies. First, there is little evidence credibility travels much. Second, even if it did, fighting limited wars of questionable value seems likely to damage one’s perceived willingness to fight elsewhere. Western intervention in Libya may encourage Middle-Eastern dictators to crush dissenters rather than accommodate them

Embroiling ourselves in Libya may do less to frighten other Middle East dictators then keeping our powder dry. Beyond tying up troops and public patience for war, the limited nature of our commitment—manifest in strict limits on the use of force and our stated desire draw back within days whether or not Qaddafi goes—might simply show dictators that they should hang tough, come what may. Whether or not he falls, if leaders like Bashar Assad fear his fate, they may simply heighten repression to prevent the sort of insurgency that brought western bombs to Libya. (My emphasis.)

Daniel Larison takes Friedman’s piece and runs with it:

Friedman and the others at National Interest‘s The Skeptics blog have been doing great work debunking many of the arguments for the Libyan war. In his latest post, Friedman exposes the emptiness of the core pro-war claims, and he is making an argument very similar to those I have put forward against what we might call the “dictator deterrence” claim. The brutal repression we have been seeing in Syria is currently showing this claim to be false. At present, Syrian security forces have been shooting protesters and killing them by the dozens, and it seems that so long as dictatorships rely on police, irregular militia, and hired thugs to suppress dissent their violence does not cross the arbitrary line that the administration drew in Libya. Dictatorships can adapt to this fairly easily with a combination of regular police brutality and thuggery along the lines of the Basij in Iran.

I hadn’t thought of this before, but it occurs to me now that the Libyan intervention is something of a gift for other authoritarian governments. Even more than before, authoritarian governments are going to be able to portray dissenters in their countries as being in league Western powers, and they will be able to point to Libya’s fate as an example of what demands for political reform can cause. While the administration seems to be very keen to align itself with certain popular movements in the region, they are lending credibility to authoritarians’ arguments that internal dissent is intended to weaken a country and that dissent invites outside attack.

How better to help authoritarian governments to conflate political opposition with “seditionists,” as the Iranian government likes to call Green movement activists, than for Western governments to identify with a political opposition in Libya that is actively engaged in genuine sedition and armed insurrection? This isn’t going to fool determined opponents of the regime, but it would probably drive political fence-sitters in these countries towards supporting their regimes. There would then be even more suspicion that protest movements are collaborating with foreign governments or that they serve as unwitting pawns of foreign powers, and a larger percentage of the population will share these suspicions. This is the flip side of the perverse incentive to encourage protest movements to take up arms and start hopeless rebellions. The Libyan war sets several precedents, but there isn’t much reason to think that any of them are constructive.

The plunge into Libya has put the U.S. and our allies in a position where they are actually unable to follow through on the implied threat to intervene against other governments that commit atrocities against their population, and the manner in which the administration facilitated and led the Libyan war makes it extremely unlikely that the conditions that made the Libyan war possible can be repeated again. (My emphasis.)

It is true that the western intervention in Libya probably saved the lives of many civilians in Benghazi, but all of the theories used to portray the Libya war as a defense of US regional interests are falling flat. Moreover, if (and it seems likely) Libya falls into a protracted civil war, or even if Qaddafi falls and is replaced by some other disputed authority, more blood will be shed. And once again, we return to the question of what exactly this intervention was meant to accomplish.

Photo from Global Post; H/T to Sullivan

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