Libyan End in Site?

As rebel forces take town after town originally held by forces loyal to Gaddafi, a strange dilemma faces the international forces aligned against the dictator: if the rebels threaten Sirte, Gaddafi’s strong hold, would it not be the rebels rather than the Libyan army threatening civilians?   To be sure, Gaddafi’s forces have a track record of violence against civilians while the rebels arguably have had public opinion on their side and opposed the military.   There have been no complaints of rebels targeting civilians as they retook Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf.  Still, in Sirte these differences become problematic, and any video of civilian casualties threaten to undermine the international mission.

So far, those videos and pictures have been scarce to non-existent.  Tours arranged for international media in Tripoli to see civilian damage end up either coming back with nothing (“we couldn’t find the address”) or showing a site where any damage is ambiguous — perhaps it was caused by NATO, but perhaps not.  And with Gaddafi snipers and mercenaries in operation, it’s hard to pin any civilian deaths on the coalition at this point.

That means that right now the UN backed mission in Libya still holds the moral high ground, at least in relative terms.   All that could change if the rebels, not under clear control nor guided by one over-arching ideology or aim, start taking revenge on pro-Gaddafi civilians or turning on each other.

This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation.    The end game must include: a) a cease fire on all sides; b) a way for Gaddafi to go into exile with a credible chance at avoiding persecution for war crimes; c) a peace keeping mission including and perhaps dominated by the Arab League and African Union; and d) a clear plan for moving to democratic elections.

If the UN can pull this off, the message to other dictators is clear: the international community will no longer allow an abstract  claim of sovereignty to protect their grip on power.   Even if Libya is sovereign, Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily get to claim the right to sovereignty just because he has power.   That notion of sovereignty is at odds with the principle of the UN charter.

The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed dictators to breath easy.  The US certainly won’t get involved in another conflict after those have weakened the country and divided the public!  With the American economy still wobbly and still in danger of further decline, the US seems certain to become more isolationist.   Gaddafi certainly was thinking that way when he launched his counter offensive.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates were thinking that way early on too — it’s a rational position, one mirrored by the military establishment.   But French President Sarkozy and ultimately Secretary of State Clinton realized that if a truly international coalition — one without the US as the leader and motivator — were to be able to succeed rather easily, that would have the opposite effect: dictators would realize it’s risky to use force to stay in power.  Decisions like Mubarak’s to leave freely would seem more rational than those like Gaddafi’s to fight for power.   That’s why it was so important that Obama remain relatively on the sidelines and not highlight the US role (even if in practical terms US firepower dominated the response).

This also means that should Gaddafi finally be compelled to leave — and the pressure on him is mounting — a new Libya can be constructed on Libyan terms, without it seeming like the US or the West is imposing a government on the country just to control its oil or engage in neo-colonialism.  If that works it could have a chilling effect on other Arab dictatorships, especially in Syria where the government has already unleashed a crackdown.

The calculation is simple: the US wouldn’t be stupid enough to get involved in anything like Iraq again since once the bombing starts, you have to see it through.    The failures of the US in Iraq cause Syria’s Assad to believe he’s invulnerable as long as he can crack down on his population.   But if Libya proves that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns, then the calculation changes.  In a best case scenario, dictators decide early on to leave freely in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement.

Gaddafi, of course, could still fight to the end, meaning that the intervention becomes costlier and this model of countering dictators fails.   And who knows what kind of government might emerge in Libya after the fighting.  But whatever problems may come, it’s important now that NATO and the UN push for an end game so that this does not drag out.   There is reason to believe the end may be in sight.

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  1. #1 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on March 27, 2011 - 18:46

    “This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more on this, Scott. We need to declare victory and wipe our hands clean of this thing before it escalates.

    However, I don’t quite understand why proving “that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns” is strongly in America’s interests. I think your argument that it somehow erases the spectre that the United States will be hesitant to intervene because of its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan could be true. However, I think this is a very small benefit to the price America pays for getting involved.

    What is the price?

    1. Stretching American Power Thin: A third conflict that diverts forces away from potential conflict zones that are more important to American vital interests (i.e., the Korean Peninsula and the Persian Gulf) is an ill-advised one.
    2. Reduced Counterterrorism Effort: We are supporting a rebellion from a region that represented the second largest contingent of al Qada-affiliated jihadhists in Iraq (Qaddafi drove them out as part of U.S. counterterrorism efforts). We have also created another terrorist threat via Qaddafi. He has, in the past, attacked American civilian targets and is likely to do so again now that we’ve made him our enemy. We also haven’t given him an “out”, so he has nothing to lose by doing so at this point.
    3. A Blow to Regional Counterproliferation: We are signaling to the region that if you come clean on WMD (Libya did), you will not be rewarded. North Korea recently commented that Libya’s cooperation with the U.S. was an American pre-invasion tactic. By keeping dictators on their toes, there is even more of an incentive for Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons. More nuclear weapons in the region serves to increase rather than decrease instability.
    4. Increased Regional Instability: The region is less stable today than when the U.S. intervened in Libya, with uprisings continuing in Bahrain and Yemen, and beginning in Jordan and Syria. Middle Eastern instability correlates with higher energy prices at a time when the United States economy is still very shaky.
    5. New Regimes More Likely to Be Radicalized and Anti-American: All anyone needs to do is look at the historical precedents of Arab-led democracy in Palestine (Hamas) and Lebanon (Hizbullah) to see where it leads.

    The Obama administration did not think this one through.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on March 28, 2011 - 02:47

      To answer about the price:
      1. This needn’t stretch American power thin. This actually can demonstrate that despite Iraq, the US can act in a way which dictators should fear.
      2. I don’t really trust Gaddafi on counter-terrorism, nor do I think we need to coddle dictators. Al qaeda is weak, not winning the hearts and minds of the Arab world, and I suspect that making inroads with the future leaders of the region (rather than sticking with the dictators) will do more good than harm on that front.
      3. I don’t really think this will alter any calculation in other countries about the desirability of nuclear weapons. I also don’t think Gaddafi bought the right to brutally attack his own people by agreeing (out of self-interest) to stop his WMD program.
      4. The region is and will remain unstable because the Arab youth are rising up, angry about corruption and tyranny from the ruling classes. We can use this to our advantage.
      5. Maybe supporting the people rather than the dictators will yield results that are more pro-American than anti-American. Anyway, it does appear that the Islamic extremists don’t have a lot of clout among the Arab youth, and we shouldn’t ditch our principles out of fear. The old regimes are anachronistic, they can’t last. This is a lot like how the Soviet empire fell. We need to welcome the change, even if it has dangers.

      I think the Obama administration thought this through — if anything, Obama overthinks things. They may end up being proven wrong, none of us know for sure at this point, but it’s clearly less of a risk than Iraq was.

      • #3 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on March 28, 2011 - 03:00

        Scott,

        I hope you’re right. This strategy just seems to hinge on many what ifs. I actually think this strategy is much more volatile than that in Iraq (i.e., its potential upside is greater, but so is its potential downside). Plus, I think it puts too much hope on the Arab street to move toward democracy and away from radicalism. We also have very little control over the outcome, and that worries me.

        The more I read and watch members of the administration speak on television, the more I think one major reason we bombed Libya was as a quid pro quo for our allies’ support in Iraq and Afghanistan.

        I hope Obama tells us on Monday that our mission is accomplished and the handoff is complete. We still have a chance to disengage from this campaign and I firmly hope we take that opportunity as soon as we can.

  2. #4 by modestypress on March 27, 2011 - 19:18

    Move the population of Libya to Ivory Coast and the population of Ivory Coast to Libya. You can get there by boat or tank just as easily.

  3. #5 by brucetheeconomist on March 28, 2011 - 02:06

    What about Baharain, or as mentioned Syria?

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