The pundit class in the US is all over the place on the Libyan intervention. Some bemoan the fact that there is no exit plan and predict a bloody stalemate that will harm US interests and bring more problems to the region. Others argue that this is the perfect strategy – a multinational attack to weaken Gaddafi’s forces so that rebels on the ground in Libya have a real chance to overthrow a tyrant. Still others suggest we are taking sides in a civil war that will be deadlier and longer than if we had simply let Gaddafi do his dirty work. Violence begets violence.
So who is right?
First, let’s define what this war is all about. This is a United Nations operation, passed by the Security Council 10-0 (Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil abstaining). Gaddafi’s rhetoric that “there will be no mercy and no pity” on the residents of Benghazi no doubt helped sway nations to either support or at least not oppose intervention. The Security Council clearly feared that Gaddafi would perpetrate a blood bath. Moreover, the US is a reluctant participant. Although Secretary of State Clinton seemed closer to the hawkish views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Department of Defense (including Defense Secretary Gates, who also served under President Bush) and President Obama worried about adding another military commitment to the US plate.
The plan seems to be one designed to inspire the Libyans to finish off Gaddafi’s regime. Once mid-level Libyan elites see that the world community means business, and that even if they survive they’ll never be legitimate, never be able to act in the global economy in a profitable manner and sooner or later will fall victim to the rebels’ wrath, they’ll decide it’s better to switch than fight. In that scenario Gaddafi loses support until either some kind of internal coup overthrows his regime or, recognizing the futility of his situation, he strikes a deal to go into exile.
Plans that rely on the success of others are always risky. Gaddafi has been in power for 32 years; you don’t stay that long if you haven’t learned how to protect your back. Moreover many Libyans around him are implicated in everything from terrorism to torture, and may see no alternative but to stick with the regime. Finally the rebels themselves are an unknown quantity. Despite his tyranny, Gaddafi was opposed to al qaeda and helped limit African migration to Europe. What will the next regime be like?
On the other hand, those who fear the rise of Islamic extremism have to acknowledge that Islamicist voices have been mostly vacant from the rhetoric and face of the rebellion. No one is holding up al qaeda signs or yelling “death to America.” A knee jerk fear of the unknown is no more rational than a knee jerk idealist belief that after Gaddafi democracy will flourish.
Moreover, the US does see change sweeping the region. Yemen is teetering on the brink at this moment, and the revolutions I speculated about back in January seem all too real today. Both the Europeans and Americans want to be on the ‘right side’ of history, and have an impact on the changes taking place. They also recall the price of doing nothing. Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, who was commander of the UN Rwanda mission, early on called for the UN to use force to stop Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people.
The United States has also remained purposefully in the political background, even though military capabilities necessitate it being in the foreground of action taken. President Obama has not been the leading voice calling for intervention, and embraced a limit to military activity. This stands in marked contrast to the past roles played by Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush the Elder, when the US President was front and center in trying to build international support for military action. While some criticize this as “disengaged lack of leadership,” it is definitely done with purpose. The US military is overstretched, we cannot afford another engagement that sucks us in deeper and deeper until there seems no way out. Yet despite the subdued rhetoric, the US is wielding a big stick, hitting Libya hard in the early strikes.
More importantly, the US is signaling acceptance of the new multipolarity, something President Bush worked hard to avoid (and many Republicans and Democrats still refuse to acknowledge). If military power is to be used to try to enforce human rights and protect civilians then others have to share the burden and be responsible to lead. In some ways Obama’s policy harkens back to what President Bush the Elder hoped for with his “new world order.” Even the US has to play by the rules now.
If Gaddafi falls in short order, the policy will be seen as a success and Obama vindicated. If it turns into a stalemate dragging on and pulling the US in deeper, Obama may be looking for a new residence in two years. If I had to bet, I’d say a middle ground result is likely, more like Kosovo than Iraq. After a stalemate is reached, a peace accord between Gaddafi and the rebels will be hammered out, effectively splitting the country. The rebels would be forced to sign this because if not NATO would withdraw its air cover and military support. Gaddafi will realize this is the only way to stop the bombs and missiles. After that support will shift away from Gaddafi, much like Milosevic found his authority in Serbia decline after the Kosovo war. Either Gaddafi will weaken and ultimately be overthrown or he will die in office (either by natural or unnatural causes) with his son unable to assert authority. At that point a new national unity government could be proclaimed.
Still, there is confusion. This is new ground for the US and the international community. If this is successful, it will demonstrate that the 21st century is more difficult terrain for brutal corrupt dictators. If it fails, dictators will be emboldened and the West humiliated. Was this policy a wise move? I don’t know, I guess I’d say it’s an interesting move. As a political scientist I find this whole process fascinating to observe.