Libya: To Love or to Fight?

Will the mission in Libya creep forward some more?

The rebel forces in Libya seem to be stuck. The city of Benghazi was saved due to the intervention by western forces and the rebels were able to battle back into central Libya with battles ongoing in Brega and Ajdabiya, but the march to Tripoli seems to have stalled there. Rebel leaders are blaming NATO, saying that their progress has slowed due to a reduction in bombing campaigns – highlighting how the rebels are dependent on western forces for success. The question lingers, though, if air support will be enough for the rebels – who only number around 1,000 – to take Tripoli. With Libya looking more and more like a stalemate, some are wondering whether it would be appropriate to send in western troops to fight alongside the rebels and facilitate the fall of the regime.

Foreign Policy has two great articles up about this subject. Both pieces argue that air support is not enough to ensure a rebel victory and both authors advocate more support – though they differ in their suggestions. Jason Pack is more of a lover and James Dubik is more a fighter. Obviously, it is impossible to tell if it is better to end the conflict through introducing western troops or to push for more indirect pressure. And it goes without saying that an escalation that involves western ground troops implies a bigger responsibility for the west after the collapse of Qaddafi.

Take it away Pack:

The best hope for the rebels is that the Qaddafi regime crumbles from within — a distinct possibility as key defections, daily hardships in Tripoli under international siege, and Qaddafi’s diplomatic blunders all progressively demoralize his supporters. So far, coalition air power has been crucial in keeping the rebels alive long enough that Qaddafi’s forces may self-destruct. But merely preventing slaughter and a rebel defeat is not enough. Now that the no-fly zone has fulfilled its key humanitarian and strategic mission, it is time for the coalition to shift gears. As Oliver Miles, former British ambassador to Libya, puts it, “Precisely because it is unlikely that the rebels will be able to militarily defeat Qaddafi even with increased coalition air support or more arms, Western and Arab countries can best help the rebels through politics, diplomacy, and propaganda — all of which, if employed with savoir-faire, may tip the scales away from Qaddafi…”

But that support should primarily be political, not military in nature. The Western and Arab allies are beginning to recognize this, yet more sophisticated and high-level efforts are urgently needed. Prominent defectors like Moussa Koussa should be harnessed for all their propaganda value and asked to speak out against Qaddafi on Arabic satellite TV. Additionally, the coalition could help rebel leaders voice their cause to their potential comrades in Qaddafi-controlled western Libya. Qatar has already set up a satellite channel for the rebels; more countries should give them airtime, funding, and more diplomatic support. French President Nicolas Sarkozy — who has recognized the TNC as the legitimate government of all of Libya and seems the most politically committed of Western leaders — could extend another invitation to Mahmoud Jibril, the rebels’ de facto foreign minister, this time to the Élysée Palace, granting him international prestige and a platform to ask for more specific assistance.

Moral power, not firepower, is what will ultimately defeat Qaddafi. The fighters are the heart and soul of the Libyan revolt, but they will never be able to lead it. Savvy diplomatic support and a little bit of good fortune could very well produce a tipping point over the next weeks or months. Until then, the international community must not take its eye off the ball as other crises emerge in the Arab world or the situation on the ground appears to become stalemated. Libya’s future depends on it.

Your rebuttal Dubik?

From my standpoint, the reality is that Qaddafi is unlikely to give up even if his forces have stopped moving east and continue to battle in and around key cities. The coalition’s choices are few, and none are good: 1) hold what it has and risk the rebels being cornered in some small portion of the country or ultimately forced to surrender at the point of Qaddafi’s guns; 2) decide to take the steps necessary to actually enforce the writ of the Security Council resolution — sending in the ground forces and supplying the rebels with weapons — while increasing nonmilitary pressure on the Qaddafi regime; or 3) continue doing more of the same — the minimum militarily…

Let me be clear; this is not a simple task. A peacekeeping mission is not necessarily peaceful. If the regime falls, former Qaddafi supporters may not simply yield power. In fact, they may carry on the fight by other means. Some could become insurgents. We saw this in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is little appetite for yet another large-scale ground commitment, but wartime realities have a way of forcing themselves on those involved. And by intervening in the first place, however noble the motivation, the coalition is already involved in shaping Libya’s political fate. Once again, no one hopes that a post-Qaddafi Libya will be reduced to anarchy. But if that’s what happens, the coalition has the same moral responsibility — perhaps even more than before the intervention — to not let Libyans succumb to chaos. And from a purely security perspective, nor could the West stand by if the pro-democracy rebel force it helped were eclipsed by the Islamic fundamentalist inclinations of some of its members.

Granted, this was not the type of limited conflict that Obama promised the American people. And there are plenty of reasons to focus on the immediate fight (the success of which is still in doubt) instead of Libya’s long-term future. But Qaddafi has shown he is willing to use force to impose his will in Libya; is the coalition? This is what war is about, like it or not.

Personally, I think that the introduction of troops would be catastrophic. The rebels don’t want them and they would do little good in ensuring a peaceful transition from power. A western ground presence would not only transform the revolution from an organic Libya affair to western regime change (has it already happened?), but it would also entangle the west – particularly the United States – in another military state building affair that is unwanted by everyone. While it is true that Libya has no state institutions that are not controlled by Qaddafi, bringing in ground troops would not be the answer.

Likewise, the west must do more than Pack is suggesting. Recognizing the rebels as the true government of Libya is a step, but giving them access to a media platform and bringing rebel representatives to the Elysee Palace will only do so much. These steps are pushing the legitimacy of the TNC on the west- worthy, of course – but it does little to reign in the potential chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. The type of support Libyan rebels need would be helping to establish state institutions under the TNC that will help ensure law and order after Qaddafi falls.

Most Libyans already consider the TNC to be the legitimate government of their country. Appearances by rebel leaders in other countries does not solve the underlying problem facing the country’s future. How to go about creating state institutions when the rebels only control part of the state is an entirely different matter.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Should the west help end the stalemate with troops?

Photo from Apan

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3 thoughts on “Libya: To Love or to Fight?

  1. Chris, great article balancing Pack’s non-intervention and Dubick’s more practical assessment of the realpolitik of the Libyan situation. We all know that diplomacy is conducted on many levels.
    Governments want, publicly, to be seen as moral entities acting justly for the benefit of all with certain restraints. In actuality any fit government must see that it cannot allow morality limit the ability of that government to survive. A government that does not survive is moot.
    There must be a vision of the long-term costs and benefits for a course of action. It is like a game of chess: an action by itself may set the stage for a strategic conclusion later. So, what is the evaluation of Gaddafi’s Libya? The Saudis must have some reservations because of a previous plot on the king’s life. The Syrians may be aiding Gaddafi because if Gaddafi falls it may give hope to Syria’s own internal resistance and a win by Gaddafi would make Syria’s regime more secure.
    Egypt, in the throws of its own post-revolution confusion, is naturally cautious about any support for Gaddafi’s oppressive regime. A similar calculus applies in the rest of North Africa and the gulf.
    Gaddafi’s intransigence and propensity to waste human life is Machiavellian in nature but Machiavelli would certainly view Gaddafi’s overtly brutal governance as not befitting a prince. In fact, I believe Machiavelli would view Gaddafi’s over the top and historical evil deeds a threat to the whole of the Mediterranean a Middle East stability.
    The shock of the rebellions there is like a bell whose reverberations must be allowed to dampen and restore a semblance of balance.
    It is in the interest of the countries of the Middle East and Europe to covertly remove Gaddafi from power. His record of retributive violence may set a spark for future conflict, especially as the disruption of oil to the engine to the world, if he survives. The uncertainty as to the flavor of the Benghazi regime’s ultimate composition is small in the face of Gaddafi’s revenge.

    1. Thanks Carlos,

      I would imagine that Assad and the Syrian regime are beyond the point of worrying about Qaddafi – Assad seems pretty busy repressing his own people at the moment. There have been reports of Egyptian arms making their way to Benghazi, so it seems as though they are more than cautious about the troublesome neighbor. If Qaddafi survives, there is certainly a risk of the leader’s revenge, but – as terrible as it sounds – that revenge is likely to be limited to Libya (at least for the US, Libyan oil is rather inconsequential – a different story for Europe). Thus, it really is not in the interests of other countries (unless, you know, they have morals). Most places want to get rid of the man, but few will be willing to commit the troops (and face the blowback from Arab nations) for doing so.

      The threats from a chaotic post-Qaddafi period could be international however, if the reports of Al Qaeda are true. That in itself is probably pushing western governments to find some type of middle ground. I have opposed this intervention from the beginning for many reasons, but I refuse to accept that this is some non-negotiable dichotomy of invade Libya or leave the rebels to be slaughtered. Before the intervention, I supported massive diplomatic and economic measures, but now that the intervention is ours, I push to find some way of aiding the rebels from not on the ground while trying to minimize the potential for chaos after. For me, this should be priority #1.

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