What Now in Libya?
The international community, armed with a United Nations Security Resolution (UNSCR) authorizing Chapter VII force, has endorsed a military campaign against Libya, and the christening blows were sent yesterday as French jets and American Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on the forces of Muammar Qadhafi. In defiance, Qadhafi has promised the coalition arrayed against him a “long war” and has characterized the intervention, predictably enough, as a “colonial crusade,” presumably in the hope of rallying indigenous anti-colonialists and intervention-wary Arab states to his aid.
It is, of course, entirely too soon to predict where all this will lead. Those who have joined the “coalition of the willing” have stated modest goals for their actions. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the JCS, has specifically said the purpose of military action is not to overthrow the Qadhafi regime, but simply to protect those attempting to overthrow Qadhafi from retribution. This, arguably, is a distinction without a difference, but it at least rhetorically gets the United States off the hook of intervening (illegally) to affect a civil conflict and on the morally higher ground of preventing a humanitarian disaster. Hopefully it is that simple; probably it is not.
Although it is escessive to predict where this whole adventure is going to head, it is not so improvident to raise questions about that direction in the hope that the answers will in some way inform and even direct policy. For lack of better labels, I think the questions can be characterized as political, military, and precedential.
Politically, there are at least two important, sequential questions to ask. The first is about who it is we are now supporting. Although the French quickly recognized the “rebels” as the legitimate government of Libya last week, it is not at all clear who these people are in political terms. They are anti-Qadhafi, but we don’t know who they are or what they are for. Qadhafi says they are Al Qaeda, an interesting stretch, and they almost certainly are not that. They indicate they favor democracy (what else can they say?), but at least publicly, there has been no indication we have a clue what these people would do if they gained power. Some people might argue that if one is going to put American lives at risk, it would be nice to know in what cause.
The second political question flows from the first: what political objective do we seek to achieve in what we are doing? Is it merely to save Libyans from slaughter by their leader? If so, when can we say “mission accomplished” and quit? The potential for what the military calls “mission creep” (an original mission gradually enlarging until it bears little resemblance but much greater commitment than it originally had) is omnipresent. Think Somalia in 1992, or Operation Provide Comfort (Iraq) in 1991, or, for that matter, Afghanistan in 2002. If replacing Qadhafi is the objective, that may mean a much longer commitment (as he promises) and could still leave unanswered the first political question (e.g. Who are these masked men?).
The second concern is military. What is the United States (and the rest of the UN deputy countries) willing to do to achieve against Libya whatever objective we have? Is it “limited” to creating and enforcing a no-fly zone? If so, how long a commitment is that? The Kurdish no-fly zone,as pointed out here a couple weeks ago, suggests a possibly open-ended commitment that would certainly constitute mission creep. But does the mission go beyond that? Are we going to provide close air support of rebel activities on the ground? If so, we are going to kill Libyan armed forces and incur casualties ourselves, thereby raising the stakes of the game. If that doesn’t work, are ground troops next? We say and doubtless believe the latter answer is no, but once processes are engaged, they sometimes develop a dynamic all of their own.
The final question is about the precedent that is being set. Clearly, the underlying principle here is that the international community will not permit the concerted slaughter of a population by its political leaders. As a principle, that is pretty unassailable, but its implications are not. First, there is no shortage of such potential situations for the world to stick its nose into, and the history of these efforts is that sometimes the world acts, and sometimes it does not. How is Libya an obvious instance of the kinds of things we do involve ourselves in? The United States, one might add, has been decidedly ambivalent about its personal involvement in these matters. Humanitarian intervention is a universally appealing principle, but executing it is not.
There are two more precedential matters to ponder. In this case, the Arab League has endorsed military actions, but it is on the horns of dilemma here. By turning on one of its members, it is saying there are limits to Muslim brotherhood, but how much outside help are they willing to accept or embrace? There is also lots of anti-colonial, anti-Western sentiment in the region, and a prolonged military action (particularly if it involves putting Europeans/Americans on the ground) is going to precipitate a negative reaction. There is a fine line here somewhere that is probably as yet undefined but over which we do not want to step.
Finally, what kind of precedent does the UN action set for others out there who want to overthrow their governments? Does the UN action means that if one rises up against a tyrant (and, to repeat, they are not in short supply, especially in the Middle East), begins to lose, and has worldwide media coverage of the carnage, that you can expect an international intervention to help accomplish your goals? If the outside forces indeed push the situation decisively against Qadhafi, it certainly would be possible for someone to think that way.
These are probably not all the interesting, potentially important questions that should be asked about the Libyan operation, and one hopes they are indeed being asked in official circles as we speak. The answers to these and other questions not raised here will help inform what to do next and whether any or all of it is a good idea.