The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Libya, it was consensus vs clarity. I'm glad Obama went with consensus

US President Obama is coming under increasing pressure to explain exactly what it is that the United States is doing in Libya. If he's honest, he might say something like the following: "We are there in support of a document produced by a committee, under time constraints, which is consequently rather fuzzily worded, authorizing vaguely-described actions to achieve some very generally defined goals. We are there to prevent a tragedy, the scale of which will remain unknown unless we allow it to happen. We will probably remain committed to some degree until a wide range of Libyan actors, most of whose identities and agendas we do not know, can reach a stable ceasefire agreement, the terms of which we only guess at." I think that this is a good mission.

Americans prefer their wars to involve overwhelming force, applied on a strict timeline, accompanied by a plausible exit strategy, so as to achieve a satisfactory and stable end-state. Obama's Libya mission in contrast has been labelled "poorly conceived", "muddled", etc. But here's the problem: while in general, it's probably a good idea for a president to explain his or her war goals to the public, too rigid an adherance to the decisive force/clear mission/clear exit strategy set of parameters can be counterproductive in terms of actually accomplishing a stable status quo. It neglects what ought to be a rather key conceptual principle behind any intervention: it's not about us. ("Us", because I'm writing here as an American). Or rather, it might be our blood and our treasure, and hopefully our national interest, but it's some other country's factions, some other country's dynamics, some other country's agendas. Our main hope in intervention is to influence the actors to behave in a way that suits a larger goal, and in the mean time, provide as much disincentive as possible to slaughter civilians.

This, I think, is being accomplished. When I left Libya ten days ago, the strategic town of Ajdabiya to the south had just been placed under siege, and a column of armor was bearing down on Benghazi. Now that siege has been lifted, and Qaddafi's tanks are so many smoldering wrecks on the Ajdabiya-Benghazi highway. In the west, the city of Misrata, which was under daily assault and was about to have its power and water cut off, has just seen the first shipment of aid arrive. Almost certainly, Libyan civilians are much safer than they were ten days ago, which ought to be the basic standard of determining whether or not a humanitarian intervention is a success.

Obviously you should think about how a war will end. But while planning is indispensible, as Eisenhower said, the plans themselves are useless. Thinking through scenarios helps you identify actors, variables, etc. But if you commit yourself to that scenario, you're setting yourself up for failure. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq with a plan to wage a short, sharp war and hand the country over to the opposition: easily explained, easily understood, flamingly unrealistic. In 1995, in contrast, Europeans and Americans intervened in Bosnia in a very similar manner to how they are intervening now in Libya: waging an air campaign against tanks and artillery that were directly threatening cities. This produced an almost instant ceasefire, and shortly afterwards a comprehensive peace agreement. In 1991, US forces began to enforce a no-fly and eventually a no-drive zone over Iraqi Kurdistan. This required another 12 years of enforcement, which was expensive and messy. But it was far better outcome then the massacre of tens of thousands of Shia earlier in the year after Bush Sr. decided to have a nice, clean 100-hour ground war with a nice, clean end.

To address some specific criticisms of the Euro-American war plan, if you can call it that: yes, the United States could have intervened in Libya earlier. This may have spared thousands of lives, particularly in the town of Zawiya, which fell to Qaddafi's forces on March 10 after a week-long siege. However, up until the end of the first week of March, it looked as though military defections might gather pace and the rebels might win without outside help. To have intervened would have been to redefine the political dynamics of the Libyan war at a time when it looked like things were going the rebels' way. It is very difficult to guess how the rebels would have reacted to Tomahawks coming down on Tripoli at this point. Foreign military intervention in one's country is always disconcerting at the least, terrifying at the best, and is most likely to be welcomed when it removes an immediate threat. Based on my experiences in Iraq, I'd guess that many would have concluded that the Americans were intervening to take advantage of the situation and steal Libyan oil -- a narrative that would likely have been reinforced by a pan-Arab media that had not yet awakened to the possibility that Qaddafi's forces would need to be stopped by airstrikes. Waiting until the 11th hour was, politically speaking, the safe course. To see American conservatives saying that a no-fly zone should have been applied from the very beginning -- or worse yet, advocating the insertion of ground troops -- suggests that they have learned nothing from the experience in Iraq: that to assert one's power without considering how one's actions are perceived by the population in the target country, and in the region, is to court disaster.

Yes, the intervening powers could have had a clearer mission statement: ie, the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. However, I doubt that the UN Security Council would have endorsed the overthrow of Qaddafi as an explicit goal. It would also go against the spirit of the UN charter, which gives member states a clear mandate to prevent breaches of the peace, and no mandate to decide who governs and who does not govern. Many on the American right may snort at the idea that there is anything to be gained by acting with UN backing. But again they seem oblivious to the importance of manipulating how one's actions are perceived. To act under the umbrella of a UN resolution dilutes the perception that the US is simply making a grab for the oil. It also means that more countries are supplying planes, which makes it easier for the Americans to withdraw. However, it also may mean that we cannot act too directly to ensure a rebel military victory -- and without outside support, I do not see how rebel forces in their current degree of disorganization will be able to capture remote Qaddafi strongholds like Sirte or Sabha. Qaddafi's regime could easily collapse from the inside, but we might also be looking at a prolonged stalemate.

Sure, we could not be there at all. But then we'd have to steel ourselves to watching a bloodbath which we could have prevented. Many of the most horrifying episodes in recent Middle Eastern history have come when a city liberated by rebels is targeted for recapture by a bloodied but vengeful regime -- Hama in 1982, Halabja in 1988, Najaf and Karbala in 1991. The estimate of 100,000 dead [link added after publication], should Qaddafi besiege and destroy the cities of the east, does not strike me as particularly unreasonable. This would probably be followed by a flood of refugees, and then the world have the unpleasant choice of either going back to business-as-usual with Qaddafi or squeezing the Libyan population with sanctions. This outcome would reinforce anti-Western narratives in the Muslim world. It would give other dictators an incentive to resort to force as early as possible in crushing unrest. It would probably provide a theater for a prolonged jihadi-attracting guerrilla campaign. It might encourage Qaddafi to restart his nuclear program or return to his old ways of backing terrorism.

Obama is a good politician, and like most politicians, he puts a strong premium on risk avoidance. In Libya, he has avoided most of the risks of intervening without international support, a clear international mandate, of unqualified support from the rebels, and of at least grudging support from the region. The result is a politically finely-tuned mission which is somewhat more difficult to explain to a domestic audience, or to the military officers charged with carrying it out. It is not ideal. A war fought by consensus arguably risks engendering tactical incompetence. But the American military tends not to lose its tactical encounters: our defeats in Iraq for example were mostly political, where we end up fighting people whom we don't need to fight. But given the damage that has been done earlier by military missions which were far easier to explain but much more difficult to execute, I think that ensuring the best possible political background for this war is a fairly respectable decision.

Steve Negus16 Comments