What's It All About in Libya?



So why are we in Libya now?

Just as in with Iraq, there are sound reasons supporting both intervention and non-intervention. Unlike Iraq, and this is an important distinction, the reasons supporting intervention are timepegged to now, and not 20 years before. A dictator who has long had a cushy relationship with the West has gone rogue, or so they say. In truth, he's been going rogue for sometime, but now the media has caught onto it, and the mass public suddenly care (thanks Tahrir Square!).

Libya was one of a wave of popular democratic uprisings, and that uprising started to go South right about the time of the Egyptian success. As usual, the Obama administration wasted the opportunity to capitalize on the media narrative. The US could have swept in when the rebels had the upper hand and actually have made a difference. The world, buoyed by Egypt, would have backed and supported this action at that time, and in fact urged it.

But it's not just an uprising anymore. Now it's a civil war. The moral relevance of this? This means there are civilians on both sides. The rules of war are different from rules of rebellion.

So why get involved now? Had the United States intervened when rebel troops actually had the upper hand, their presence would have been welcome and brief. But now we run the risk of being embroiled in another quagmire, one with dangerous reputational consequences for the United States.

Seriously, what is the objective here? Admiral Mike Mullen is on record as saying that they can envision completing their objectives and have Gaddafi retain power. THEN WHAT IS THE OBJECTIVE?!?


The stated aim of the intervention is to protect civilians from violent action from Gaddafi. Yet the coalition will not use ground troops, only airstrikes.

An internal uprising rarely aims to destroy critical infrastructures and disrupt supply chains. This is still true to some extent even in a civil war. After all, who wants to turn a resource powerhouse into a wasteland? Conversely, these are the precise objectives of air attacks and targeted bombings. Bombs are used to destroy buildings, bases, homes and vehicles. And bombs have that pesky problem of collateral damage, especially cluster bombs, which are notoriously imprecise. End result? That country where you're intervening to 'protect the people' ends up with a hell of a lot of death and destruction.

Sending in ground troops could actually achieve the stated aims of the coalition forces; airstrikes are a gesture of military might and nothing more.


Which is shady at best.

Yes there are about 15 humanitarian crises that have reached boiling point around the world, and eight in the Middle East/North Africa region alone. Of course it's ludicrous for the US to intervene in all of them (from a practical basis at the very very least, not to mention ethical ones). But even if we limit the choices to the nations that have been heavily covered in the recent news -- Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Japan -- the sudden reversal of the non-intervention policy in Libya is startling. [Japan has made statements that they do not require/desire assistance from the West, as they are more than capable of captaining their own ship].

So we are left with Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. Let's pretend that, for whatever reason, the US can only intervene in one nation, and not all three. How can the Libya decision be justified?

The charitable motivation is that Western institutions (government, defense and education) have been systematically shamed for complicity with the Gaddafi administration, and the West wishes to make reparations for its past transgressions (aka save what tiny bit of face they have left).

But the United States is equally, if not MORE, directly culpable for the events in Yemen. As pointed out in a Wikileaks cable (discussed in more detail here), "Yemen's government repeatedly diverted U.S.- and British-supported counterterrorism fighters from their intended use against al Qaeda to fight a purely domestic opposition group." Talk about embarrassing. I can see why the United States would avoid getting involved here, they have not been overly successful in countries with a strong Al Qaeda presence.

As for Bahrain? Too many complications with Saudi Arabia.

The less charitable view, and I really, really hate to make this argument, is about oil. Since the Libyan crisis began, oil prices have skyrocketed (Yemen and Bahrain also are oil producers, but they make significantly less of it, at less quality). Now it's quite obvious that the best way to return oil stability would be simply let Gaddafi steamroll the opposition and return production to full. So this may be why the West is making token gestures of airstrikes rather than all out ground war.

If they're lucky, Gaddafi will give in early and the US can claim some reparation to their shoddy human rights intervention record. At worst? Gaddafi holds strong and the west sticks to their commitment to NOT send in ground troops. So the intervention would fail, but at low human and financial cost to the United States, and they can still claim they tried. And oil production resumes. Phew. And the Obama administration can return to that lingering economic crisis and pre-existing nightmares in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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4 Responses to “ What's It All About in Libya? ”

  1. I share a lot of these sentiments, but I would argue that virtually every "uprising" quickly or eventually becomes a civil war; to pretend that there were no Mubarak loyalists in Egypt, for example, is not the same as judging their claims to have been illegitimate. In other words, there isn't really a solid way of distinguishing the one from the other, especially when peaceful protest is fired on by tanks and snipers, as Libyans were at the very start. And we should never forget that a big part of the reason the West didn't intervene in Rwanda was that it was a civil war long before it became a genocide. Most arguments for non-intervention in Libya now are at least as applicable to non-intervention in Rwanda in 1994.

    This intervention may still turn out to be a very bad thing, and we have many reasons to question things like the timing and intentions and methods of the people who are calling in air strikes. But we shouldn't pretend that there are many obvious examples of "good interventions" that we can compare this one to and find it lacking by comparison; my own feelings are that this is pretty much exactly the scenario which the UN "responsibility to protect" doctrine was crafted to deal with, and I don't know anyone who's come up with a better alternative than that. And I haven't heard a single argument against the UN intervention that offered a viable alternative to watching Gaddafi slaughter many thousands (though I think it would be fair to say that the West had more and better options in late February, and squandered them). So, while I share your concerns, I do think we need to be realistic about the possibility that all the other alternatives might be worse, even a lot worse.

    I'm writing something on this, though, so I'll stop here.

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    I totally understand your point about the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, but there's a little known feature that, at the time that doctrine became effective, many key players wanted to put in a statement that would outright ban cluster bombs and air strikes as sole actions used when invoking RTP. Naturally, certain NATO states did not agree.

    Maybe this is a point that I should have made prominent, but many of my misgivings would be demurred if the coalition had sent in ground troops instead. Marines and special forces are trained to neutralize specific threats, and more importantly, they can recognize who the enemies are in an ever-changing landscape.

    I am fully, 100% in support of intervention in this case, and oftentimes the ends do, in fact, justify means and motivations. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  3. That's a really interesting distinction. Though the good thing about air strikes and cruise missiles -- and good lord it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to say that -- is that it's a strategy explicitly geared to obviate occupation. Once you send a few troops, escalation and mission creep are *really* hard to avoid, if past experience is any guide. But I dunno. We're all flying in the dark here.

  4. In my mind, one solution to prevent occupation (which is a real, tertiary worry in my mind) is for the coalition to recognize the transition government that's in place and allow them to draft the terms of combat.


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