Most American global activism -- particularly of the military sort -- is justified by the claim that the security of the American homeland and the safety of U.S. citizens ultimately depends on controlling, shaping, influencing, deterring, compelling, dominating, destroying or in some way interfering with people in lots of far-away places. Yet the simple fact that we can do all those things in almost any corner of the world tells you two things that belie this justification.
Specifically: 1) the United States still has military capabilities that dwarf everyone else's, and 2) we are so secure here at home that we don't have to spend much time or effort worrying about defending our own soil. Even if another terrorist group got as lucky as al Qaeda did back on 9/11, it wouldn't threaten our independence, long-term prosperity, or way of life unless we responded to such an attack in especially foolish ways (see under: Operation Iraqi Freedom).
Call this the (In)Security Paradox: The main reason Americans are able to gallivant all over the world and expend lots of ink and bytes and pixels debating whether to get involved in Syria, Mali, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the South China Sea, etc., etc., is because the United States is actually very secure. What happens in most of these places isn't going to affect the safety or prosperity of the vast majority of Americans at all; U.S. citizens are much more likely to be harmed in an automobile accident, in a big storm, or in a household accident, than as a result of something happening in some distant land. We say we need to do these things to be secure; in reality, we are so secure that we have the luxury of intervening in wars of choice that ultimately don't matter very much. Which is one reason why we do.
This paradox got me thinking: what would happen if the United States were really insecure? What if we faced a malevolent peer competitor that was larger, more populous, more advanced, more productive, and more powerful than we were? What if our immediate neighbors were both hostile and military capable? What if all of the world's major powers were united in an alliance against us? What would our foreign and defense policy look like then? Here are a few thoughts.
#1: If the United States were really insecure, it would spend a lot more on defense and raise taxes to pay for it. If the US were really threatened, most Americans would accept diminished living standards and higher taxes in order to afford a more robust defense. You know, like we did in World War II. But because we are in reality very secure today, we don't spend that much on defense and we think we can still run the world on the cheap.
#2: If the United States were really insecure, you wouldn't see irresponsible and grandstanding senators acting like buffoons at confirmation hearings. If they did, they'd be rightly condemned as unpatriotic know-nothings who were placing the country at risk by pandering to powerful interest groups. More broadly, a real external threat would focus the national mind and encourage a more responsible bipartisan debate on critical national security questions, instead of the monkey show we often observe these days.
#3: If the United States were really insecure, it would have to make its defense dollars stretch as far as they could. For starters, we'd have a more rational military basing structure, instead of wasting resources just to keep pork-hungry members of Congress happy.
#4: If the United States were really insecure, it wouldn't wage wars of choice at the drop of a hat. Instead, it would conserve its strength, keep its powder dry, and focus primarily on the biggest or most dangerous challenges. Translation: There'd be a lot less for liberal interventionists to talk about.
#5: If the United States were really insecure, it would be lot more careful in how it chose its allies and would be wary of giving any of them unconditional support. If the United States were really threatened, we'd want capable allies who didn't free-ride on our benevolence or take actions that got us into trouble with other important nations. And we wouldn't be all that picky about whether they were democratic or not. The main question would be whether being allied with them made us safer overall. Remember: Washington was allied with Stalinist Russia during World War II and with plenty of unsavory regimes throughout the long Cold War. When you face real threats, you can't afford to be either too picky or too generous.
#6: If the United were really insecure, we would hold military commanders and foreign policy advisors accountable for their failings and follies. Instead of firing people for sexual misconduct and other peccadillos (however regrettable they might be), we would mostly hold them accountable for their foreign policy performance. And that means serial blunderers like today's neoconservatives would be marginalized after driving the country into a ditch, and they wouldn't be treated as respected pundits and they wouldn't be advising presidential hopefuls. Only a state that is very, very secure can afford to keep listening to people whose have been wrong with such disastrous consistency.
#7: If the United States were really insecure, more academics would be engaged by important policy issues and fewer would spend their time writing obscure articles and books intended for a small number of like-minded navel-gazers. In other words, academic departments would place more value on policy-relevance, because it would be seen as an important way to help the nation deal with serious external challenges. I'd also expect Americans to put more attention and effort into teaching and learning about languages and foreign cultures, so that they could maneuver in a dangerous world more effectively. Only a truly secure nation can get away with being as ignorant of the outside world as the United States is, while at the same time believing it is somehow qualified and prepared to "lead" the world.
#8: If the United States were really insecure, we would be even more likely to play hardball with our enemies. As Alexander Downes has shown, democracies don't follow Marquis of Queensbury's rules when they find themselves in a serious war of national survival. Instead, they are as likely to deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as non-democracies are. Although the United States often does things to other countries that it would regard as barbaric were they done to us (including targeted assassinations and economic sanctions that harm civilians), U.S. armed forces do go to considerable lengths to minimize collateral damage. That would change quickly if we thought our survival or security were really at risk.
#9: If the United States were really insecure, our civil liberties were be under even greater pressure than they are today. When countries are really scared, individual freedoms and constitutional guarantees tend to go out the window. (See under: Patriot Act, McCarthyism, "warrantless surveillance," Alien & Sedition Acts, etc.) If the United States were not the world's most powerful country and actually faced a serious threat to its national independence, my guess is that there would be even more aggressive efforts to police discourse, wiretap suspected fifth columnists, and generally interfere with our traditional freedoms. Among other things this is why it is critically important to weigh threats and risks carefully. If national security elites get away with inflating threats, it becomes easier to place more shackles on us at home.
#10: If the United States were really insecure, we'd have a very different attitude toward international law, and on devising legal and/or normative constraints on warfare. Right now, American dominance encourages us to use whatever forces we have at our disposal (drones, cyber capabilities, surveillance, etc.) because we assume we will always be better at it than anyone else. But if we were really threatened, we might be more interested in eliminating categories of weaponry that we recognize could do great harm to us and might not confer any real military advantage. Who knows? We might even ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty!
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charles Oki/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
If you're one of those people who still thinks it would be a good idea to attack Iran, you might spend a moment or two reflecting on the past week of events in the Middle East. If a stupid and amateurish video can ignite violent anti-American protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, just imagine what a joint U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran would do.
And don't be misled by the fact that a few Arab leaders are also worried about Iran's nuclear program. Some of them are, though they aren't going on the American airwaves to demand "red lines" and set the stage for preventive war. More importantly, surveys of Arab opinion suggest that these publics aren't that worried about Iran's nuclear potential, which they rightly see as a counter to America's military dominance and to Israel's already-existing stockpile of nuclear weapons. If the United States and/or Israel decides to launch an unprovoked attack on Iran, it's going to be seen in the region as the latest manifestation of Western hostility to Islam, as well as another sign that we are actively trying to dominate the region. Public sentiment will be overwhelmingly against us, and current governments will have little choice but to go along with it.
There are big problems throughout the Middle East these days: civil war in Syria, low-level violence in Iraq, pervasive instability in Yemen, armed militias in Libya, uncertainty in Egypt, slow-motion ethnic cleansing on the West Bank, and a host of others. But no set of problems is so great that we couldn't make them a lot worse.
I was traveling all day yesterday and didn't have my laptop with me, so I wasn't able to comment on the tragic news from Benghazi and related violence in Cairo and elsewhere. Probably just as well: At least I didn't say anything rash, ill-considered, cynical, or shamefully exploitative. You know, like this guy did.
Millions of pixels have already been devoted to writing about these events, and much still remains to be learned (including the precise identity and motivations of the wingnuts who put out the offensive video that provided the motivation or the pretext for these attacks). I'd also like to know more about the perpetrators, and the reasons why the different governments have responded as they have. But what we know so far suggests three lessons to me.
First, it's a reminder that almost by definition, extremists try to win support and advance their cause through outrageous actions: either via hateful rhetoric or actual violence itself. We saw this phenomenon in the Balkans and in Iraq, where the most radical elements used both harsh propaganda and overt violence to fuel paranoia and force would-be moderates to choose sides. In uncertain political moments, a few bad apples can have highly disruptive effects.
Extremists on both sides are engaged in a dangerous duet: They depend on each other for sustenance and reinforcement. The extremist views and radical violence of groups like Al Qaeda create a mirror image here, in the form of paranoid Islamophobes, whose harsh rhetoric and support for endless war against the entire Muslim world in turn gives Islamic extremists potent arguments to use in their battle to win hearts and minds. Matt Duss has a great rundown on this whole problem here. My point is that if you want to make Islamic extremism stronger, you should write a check to your favorite Islamophobe.
Second, although it is way too soon to tell, we can hope that the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues in Libya has exactly the opposite effect of the one that their murderers intended. Instead of fueling anti-American sentiment or provoking the United States to react foolishly, this crime might well strengthen pro-American sentiment in Libya and perhaps even elsewhere. For whatever one might think of America's overall posture in the Middle East, Ambassador Stevens must now be counted among the martyrs of the broader "Arab spring," and there are some signs that a substantial number of Libyans see it that way. If so, helping marginalize such views would be a fitting memorial to his life's work.
Third, we should not lose sight of the broader context. This tragedy also reminds us of the deep hole that the United States has dug for itself in the Middle East over the past fifty years or so. Once upon a time, the United States was widely admired throughout the region, but that is decidedly not the case today. There are reasons why anti-American extremists hate us (and it's not just our "values"), and there are also reasons why they think that attacking Americans will win them greater support. Similarly, there are reasons why governments that pay attention to public opinion are often reluctant to embrace Uncle Sam too closely. In particular, numerous surveys of public opinion show that there is considerable anger at U.S. foreign policy among the broader publics in the Arab and Islamic world, fueled by what these peoples see as indifference to Muslim lives, one-sided support for Israel, our cozy relations with assorted Middle Eastern monarchies and dictators, and our hypocritical behavior regarding human rights and nuclear weapons. To acknowledge this broader context in no way justifies the events of this week, but ignoring this broader context is a surefire recipe for responding to it in the wrong way.
Even some of the people who favored democratic change in the Middle East understood that it would be a challenge for us in the short term, because opening these systems up to greater participation would also open them up to overt expressions of anti-Americanism and create governments that were less compliant or predictable than the old authoritarian orders. But change was going to happen sooner or later, and it's not likely to be reversed for long. The legacy of the past five decades won't be removed by a couple of presidential speeches, or even by an extended tilt in the direction of "reform." It will take time, patience, forbearance, and somewhat different approach to the entire region.
So my third lesson is two-fold: it's going be bumpy for awhile, and we need to hope that more moderate forces and cooler heads have their hands on the tiller -- including in Washington, D.C. Otherwise, it's Yeats time again:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre;
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.
I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.
Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).
The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama's rationale for going to war). It is also possible that the Colonel's fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi's demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.
So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.
First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi's fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that--including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don't ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.
Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards -- repeatedly. And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
The rebel victory in Libya is likely to gladden the hearts of liberal interventionists, who will see the NATO-aided triumph as vindicating the idea that great powers have the right and the responsibility to come to the aid of victims of tyrannical oppression. Add to that the general enthusiasm-which I share-for the broad effort to create more open and democratic orders in the Middle East, and it seems likely that the Wilsonian project that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has long embraced will get a shot in the arm. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan will be discounted, and the "Libyan model" (whatever that is) will become the latest strategic fad du jour.
If you'd like to read a good corrective to this sort of cheer-leading, I recommend Robert Kaplan's oped this morning's Financial Times, entitled ""Libya, Obama, and the Triumph of Realism." Kaplan is a self-acknowledged realist, and he offers a good defense of broadly realist approach to the tumultuous events in the Arab world and Asia. He reminds us that a realist strategy in these regions paid major dividends for many years, and argues that a balanced, prudent, and cautious policy is more likely to preserve key interests than the idealistic crusades favored by neoconservatives and Wilsonian liberals alike.
As you might expect, I think Kaplan is basically right. As I've noted before, we still don't know how the "Libyan revolution" is going to turn out. Even if Qaddafi set a very low standard for effective or just governance, the end-result of his ouster may not be as gratifying as we hope. More importantly, we also ought to guard against the common tendency to draw big policy conclusions from a single case, especially when we don't have good theories to help us understand the differences between different outcomes.
Looking forward, the policy-relevant question is whether it is a good idea for powerful outside powers to use military force to cause regime change in weak states whose leaders are misbehaving in some way. This phenomenon has become known as "foreign-imposed regime change" (FIRC). To answer that question, the first thing one ought to ask is what the general baseline patterns are: how often do FIRCs succeed, based on various measures of success? If Libya turns out well but the vast majority of FIRCs were failures, for example, then a prudent policymaker would be wary of trying to repeat the Libyan operation elsewhere. (The logic is the same in reverse, of course, our failures in Iraq do not mean that all preventive wars are wrong, even if that one obviously was).
The second step would be to identify the conditions associated with success or failure, and the causal mechanisms leading to one outcome or another. (Thus, far, the academic literatures suggests that FIRCs are more likely to fail when there are deep ethnic or religious cleavages in the target society, and when it is relatively poor). Even if FIRCs usually failed, for example, there might be certain circumstances when success was much more likely and where attempting regime change would therefore be more attractive. Because this is social science and not deterministic, knowing that conditions are favorable is no guarantee of success. But surely a smart policymaker would want to know both the general tendency and whether the case at hand might be an outlier.
The third step-which should be informed by the first two-would be to ask if there were specific policy steps that could be taken to increase the probability of success. And the smart follow-up question is to ask whether one's opponents have readily available strategies that they could employ to thwart our efforts). Even if FIRCs often fail, perhaps clever strategies and "policy learning" could improve the success rate over time, especially if leaders picked their spots carefully and if the other side had a limited repertoire of responses.
But notice one danger here: even when circumstances aren't propitious, advocates of intervention can fall prey to wishful thinking and convince themselves that they have figured out how to do these things properly, thereby avoiding the disasters that have befallen others. Right now, some people are undoubtedly thinking that the right combination of special forces, drones, local allies, and multilateral support are the magic formula for success. They may be right but I wouldn't assume it blindly and I wouldn't ignore the possibility that others will start thinking about ways to make sure the U.S. and its allies can't repeat this sort of thing elsewhere. Donald Rumsfeld was pretty sure he knew how the United States could avoid costly quagmires-go in light and get out early-the only problem was that getting in turned out to be the easy part. And don't be surprised if a few countries conclude that the real lesson of the Libyan intervention was that Muammar al-Qaddafi blundered when he agreed to end his WMD programs and open up to the outside world. I'm glad he did, but I suspect that leaders in Iran and North Korea will draw their own conclusions.
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it's only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it's hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it's not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi's incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.
Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar's own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.
It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let's by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).
I don't mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I've just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won't help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.
Vacation is over, and as I took the bus to my office this morning I had a sudden thought: Whatever happened to the war in Libya? You know, the one that used to be on the front pages every day? The one that was critical to preventing a humanitarian bloodbath and to preserving the momentum of the "Arab Spring?" The one that Obama's obedient lawyers claimed didn't involve "hostilities," in a transparent effort to evade the requirements of the War Powers Resolution? Oh, right: that one.
Obviously, the war is still going on, and it sometimes rates a new story buried deep in the middle of the newspaper, but the hopes of a rapid and cheap victory were dashed a long time ago. Assuming NATO continues to back the rebels, they will probably succeed in slowly grinding the Qaddafi family/regime into the ground -- though apparently some European leaders are now saying that negotiations are the way to go, which suggests a less-than-optimal degree of unity among the coalition (h/t Juan Cole). But if Qaddafi does go, then the liberal hawks will give each other high-fives and do their best to obscure the miscalculations and longer-term consequences of this latest whimsical war.
Three thoughts. First, although the main justification for intervention was the fear of a possible "bloodbath" had Qaddafi's forces captured the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, a second rationale was the fear that permitting Qaddafi to triumph would derail the entire Arab Spring. In essence, this was a fear of "reverse contagion": If a kleptocratic dictator like Qaddafi could use force to stay in power in Libya, then other autocrats would be similarly emboldened and the progressive forces that had launched the various upheavals would lose heart. To keep the revolutionary wave moving forward, Qaddafi had to go.
This argument now seems fallacious. There was clearly an element of contagion in the original revolutionary wave, which spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain and to Syria with remarkable speed. But like other examples of political contagion, the outcomes in each case depended on the constellation of local and external forces in each particular place and not on what was occurring in some other country. The outcome in Egypt is very different from those in Syria or Yemen, for example, and Libya and Bahrain and Morocco are carving their own paths too. In short, what happened in Libya probably had little or no effect on what is occurring elsewhere in the Arab world. To put it bluntly: If we had stayed out and Qaddafi had won outright, I suspect Assad would still be in trouble.
Second, back when NATO first got involved, a number of people made the obvious comparison to the 1999 war in Kosovo. Both wars were launched on impulse, there were no vital strategic interests involved, and both wars were fought "on the cheap" through the use of air power. NATO leaders expected the targets to succumb quickly and were surprised when their adversaries (Milosevic in 1999, Qaddafi today) hung on as long as they did.
But there's another parallel that deserves mention too. Serbia eventually surrendered, and I expect that Qaddafi or his sons will eventually do so too. But in the case of Kosovo, NATO and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping force, and they are still there 10 years later. And Kosovo has only about 28 percent of Libya's population and is much smaller geographically (some 10,000 square kilometers, compared with Libya's 1,800,000 sq. km.). So anybody who thinks that NATO, the United Nations, or the vaguely defined "international community" will be done whenever Qaddafi says uncle (or succumbs to a NATO airstrike) should probably lower their expectations and prepare themselves for long-term involvement in a deeply divided country.
Third, this latest little war leads me to think we need a new term. You all know the distinction between "wars of necessity" and "wars of choice." The line between the two is sometimes blurry, but we tend to think of the former as wars where vital strategic interests (and maybe national survival) are at stake, while the latter are wars where there is no immediate or urgent necessity for either strategic or humanitarian grounds, though one can imagine some strategic benefits accruing if all goes as planned. I propose a third category: "wars of whim." These are wars that powerful and wealthy countries fight for the same reasons that some powerful politicians cheat: "because they can."
It's not that the leaders who start these wars can't come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, and a powerful state can always devise a rationale for using force. And proponents may even believe it. But the dictionary defines whim as a "sudden or capricious idea, a fancy." A "war of whim" is just that: a war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification, and without thinking through the consequences if one's initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out. Wars of whim aren't likely to bankrupt a nation by themselves or even lead to major strategic reversals. But they are yet another distraction, at a time when world leaders ought to focusing laser-like on a very small number of Very Big Issues (like the economy).
So maybe that's the silver lining: If we're not paying much attention to Libya anymore, doesn't that tell us something about its real importance?
MARCO LONGARI/Getty Images
Not that FP has suddenly become joke central, but there's an old joke that runs like this:
An accountant, a social scientist and a lawyer are seated in a room. A guy walks in and asks them: "how much is 2 + 2?" The accountant whips out a calculator, pencils and paper, scribbles for awhile, and then says: "The answer, sir, is 4." The social scientist grabs her laptop, fires it up a few minutes, and then says "Well, as you know this is not an exact science, but I can say with a 95% level of confidence that the answer is between 3 and 5."
The lawyer, meanwhile, gets up, looks under all the chairs, checks in the closet, opens the door to the room and looks both ways down the hall. Then he comes back, sidles up to the guy who asked the question, and whispers:
"I don't care. How much do you want it to be?"
I mention this because I learned that the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn't need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn't amount to "full-blown" hostilities.
Oh, please. Let's start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let's see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we've sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi's own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it's a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn't telling us everything that it's doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.
By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether this war makes strategic sense or not. (I think not, but I can see the merits of the other side's case). They can also disagree about whether outside intervention was necessary to avert an anticipated "bloodbath" in Benghazi, or whether it was really a precipitous decision that may in the end make things worse. But let's not fall for the creative legal sophistry being offered up here. If Obama and his foreign policy team think this war (yes, war) is really in our interest, then they should make their case to the American people and their elected representatives and let the chips fall where they may. I don't have enormous respect for Congress (who could, these days?) but that's how a republic is supposed to operate. And let's not forget that Obama used to think so himself.
Postscript: Lest readers think that I'm ticked off because I'm jet-lagged, or because my trip is not going well, let me just say that I'm feeling perfectly fine, the weather here in Dublin is sensational and my Irish hosts at the IIEA couldn't have been more gracious. I'm just disappointed, but not for the first time.
Jeramy Spivey/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
With the U.S. and NATO's thumb firmly on the scale, the balance of power in Libya seems to be shifting steadily toward the rebel forces. That's bad news for the Qaddafi family, though their lack of attractive alternatives to fighting on makes it unlikely that they will simply surrender. This outcome is also not that surprising, as the Libyan military was never a first-class fighting force and it was not going to have real trouble standing up to the rebel forces once they started getting lots of outside help. The danger, however, is that the rebel forces will not be able to consolidate control over the entire country without a lot more fighting, including the sort of nasty urban warfare that can get lots of civilians killed.
As with the invasion of Iraq, in short, the issue wasn't whether the West could eventually accomplish "regime change" if it tried. Rather, the key questions revolved around whether it was in our overall interest to do so and whether the benefits would be worth the costs. In the Iraqi case, it is obvious to anyone who isn't a diehard neocon or committed Bush loyalist that the (dubious) benefits of that invasion weren't worth the enormous price tag. There were no WMD and no links between Saddam and al Qaeda, and the war has cost over a trillion dollars (possibly a lot more). Tens of thousands of people died (including some 4500 Americans), and millions of refugees had to flee their homes. And for what? Mostly, a significant improvement in Iran's influence and strategic position.
In the Libyan case, same basic question. Hardly anyone thinks the Qaddafi family deserves to run Libya, and few if any will mourn their departure. But assuming the rebels win, will the benefits of regime change be worth the costs? Secretary of Defense Gates has reported that the war has cost the United States about $750 million thus far, which is not a huge sum by DoD standards but not exactly trivial in an era of budget stringency. More troubling is the cost to Libya itself: NATO and the US intervened to ward off an anticipated "humanitarian disaster" (which might or might not have occurred and whose magnitude is anyone's guess); what we got instead was a nasty little civil war in which thousands may already have died (and the fighting isn't over yet). So we can look forward to lively debate on the wisdom of this intervention, with advocates claiming that we prevented a larger bloodbath and skeptics arguing that there was never any risk of a genocide or even a deliberate mass killing and that our decision to intervene actually made things worse.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is about to hit the 60 day deadline imposed by the War Powers Act, and so it is marshaling a lot of clever lawyers to find some way to keep the war going. But here's a radical suggestion: why not just go to Congress and ask for authorization? Such a step would be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and President Obama made this very point himself before he became President. As he told the Boston Globe in 2007: "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." And if the case for this war is so strong and it is so clearly in our vital interests to do it, surely the articulate advocates in the Obama Administration won't have any trouble convincing Congress to go along.
At the same time, the US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya, due in good part to the lack of effective political institutions and the likelihood that some of the people we are backing now will want to settle scores with loyalists. And that possibility means there's also a risk of the same sort of loyalist insurgency that sprang up in Iraq, possibly rooted in long-standing tribal divisions.
So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq. And you know what that means, don't you? We'll be there for longer than you think, and at a higher cost than one might hope. But no worries; it's not as though we have any other problems to think about (or spend money on) these days.
In an obvious example of "mission creep," France, Britain, and now Italy have decided to send military advisors to support the rebel army in Libya. While resolutely declaring the no ground troops will be sent, these NATO powers (and the United States), continue to move beyond the original limited purpose of the intervention and are openly seeking to unseat the Qadhafi regime completely.
This situation is a textbook illustration of what one might call the Intervention Paradox. Because there are no vital strategic interests at stake in the Libyan situation, outside leaders are reluctant to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation quickly. You don't hear Obama, Sarkozy, or Cameron declaring that they are going to call up reserves, redeploy forces from other commitments, or launch a direct invasion of Libya itself. They know that that mission isn't worth it, and that their own populations would quickly question the wisdom of such a massive operation.
Instead, intervening powers try to use as little force as possible, and seek to minimize their own casualties above all. After all, when there are no vital interests at stake, it is much harder to justify the loss of one's own soldiers. So they rely on airpower, not boots on the ground. They'll send advisors and weapons, but not their own troops. But because the rebel army is a ramshackle operation, and because there are real limits to what NATO can achieve with airpower alone, this minimalist approach is more likely to produce a costly stalemate in which more Libyans die. Even if it eventually succeeds, going in small prolongs the fighting and does more damage to the people we are supposedly helping.
The other option, of course, is to use overwhelming force from the very beginning. Qaddafi's loyal forces might be effective against a poorly-trained rebel army, but they would be no match for a sizeable NATO force. But this isn't really the answer either, even if we had such forces readily available (and remember, the United States is already bogged down in other places). For one thing, doing it this way is a lot more expensive, and you're likely to lose some of your own people along the way. And once you've ousted the regime you own the country, and trying to put a society like Libya back together again would not be easy or cheap (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan). Given the divisions that are already apparent among the rebels themselves, and the absence of well-functioning social and political institutions, a post-Qaddafi Libya is likely to be a real headache. And there's always the risk that an insurgency will spring up, further inflating the costs.
Hence the paradox: if you go in light you get a protracted stalemate; if you go in big you end up with a costly quagmire. Under these circumstances you can understand why the intervening powers are tiptoeing their way in, but as noted above, that merely increases the danger that the civil war drags on.
There is a third option, however: great powers could be a lot more careful about where and when they used military power to try to determine who gets to run some foreign country. But that's an option that U.S. leaders seem to have forgotten.
GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, the U.S. government is actively trying to find someplace for Muammar al-Qaddafi to go, where he (and presumably his family) can be comfortable and secure from prosecution. The idea, obviously, is to "build him a golden bridge" to retreat across, and thus hasten his removal from power.
In a different story, the Times also describes how the Mubarak family in Egypt is getting accustomed to life in jail.
So let me get this straight: one former dictator ultimately decides not to unleash massive force against anti-government demonstrators, and eventually leaves power more-or-less peacefully, if not exactly voluntarily. His reward? He winds up in jail (maybe deservedly). Another dictator responds by using loyal military units to repress unarmed demonstrators, and when they arm themselves, he starts using all the means at his disposal to defeat them and remain in power. But because the United States is now desperate to end the Libyan debacle and avoid a costly stalemate, Washington ends up trying to find him some sort of safe haven for him.
Meanwhile, what lesson will future autocrats draw from these events? The obvious one, it seems to me, is "No more Mr. Nice Guy," which may not be the message we really want to be sending.
It is also hard for me to believe that Qaddafi would accept our assurances at this point. After all, we promised not to try to overthrow him back in 2003, in exchange for his giving up his various WMD program. Given that overthrowing him is precisely what we are trying to do now, any guarantees we might give him are bound to sound pretty hollow and he's more likely to fight on and "gamble for resurrection."
Regrettably, this means that the intervening powers may have little choice but to persevere, in the hopes that the rebels eventually gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, that is likely to mean prolonging the current civil war, which in turn means more dead Libyans. All in the name of "humanitarianism."
NOTE: I'll be traveling for most of next week, and blogging will be intermittent at best.
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Was the decision to intervene in Libya justified by the threat of imminent massacres, and possibly even a genocide? And did President Obama have the authority to intervene?
If you're still wondering about either of those questions, I have two suggestions for further reading. The first is an op-ed by Alan Kuperman, which casts further doubt on the likelihood that Qadhafi's forces were about to engage in the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent bystanders in Benghazi. Kuperman points out that Qadhafi loyalists did not conduct massacres in any of the cities that they have recaptured, and that the Libyan tyrant's threats to show "no mercy" applied only to rebels. He also notes that the reported casualties are overwhelmingly male, which suggests that it is primarily combatants (i.e., rebels) who are being killed.
Note that Kuperman is no apologist for Qadhafi. He does not deny that Qadhafi is a thuggish ruler, that his loyalists were killing civilians, or that some of their actions constitute war crimes. The question, however, is whether there was an imminent risk of a bloodbath that "would stain the conscience of the world," as Obama put it.
Notice also that although Obama did not use the word genocide himself, both current and previous members of his administration did raise the spectre of a genocide in order to make the case for U.S. action. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of Policy Planning in the State Department, tweeted ""The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted." Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said ""We learned a lot in the 1990s. We saw what happened in Rwanda." The clear implication was that failure to act in Libya would produce hundreds of thousands of deliberate murders (which is what occurred in Rwanda in 1994).
Given that Qadhafi is a heinous ruler of dubious legitimacy, why does this matter? It matters because the case for intervention depends heavily on the magnitude of the humanitarian calamity that we sought to forestall. If the danger really was that grave, then the case for intervention goes up. But if the likely consequences of a Qadhafi victory were regrettable but not that large, then the case for intervention diminishes. And the case for action is even weaker if there is a genuine risk that intervention might prolong the fighting, produce a stalemate or a failed state, or provoke the government into acts of brutality that it might not have conducted otherwise.
Second: did Obama exceed his powers when he ordered the use of force? The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has issued an opinion on this issue (perhaps coincidentally, on April 1st), and--surprise, surprise--they've concluded that it was perfectly ok. The OLC makes three arguments: 1) it's not really a war, and the President has broad powers short of war; 2) we're enforcing a Security Council resolution, which gives the President even more authority, in part because he has to uphold the credibility of the Security Council; and 3) the War Powers Resolution permits the President to use force for sixty days without advance approval.
Michael Glennon of the Fletcher School examines the OLC's arguments in the Harvard National Security Journal and finds them wanting on legal and constitutional grounds. More tellingly, he also shows that these justifications are at odds with Obama's own statements before he became President. In 2007, for example, Obama told the Boston Globe that "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involves stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." (Obama used to teach constitutional law, so he's not exactly a tyro on these issues). And back when she was a mere Senator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "I do not believe that the President can take military action--including any kind of strategic bombing--against Iran without congressional authorization." More strikingly still, State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh has repeatedly argued--as a scholar--against precisely this sort of expansive interpretation of presidential power. But not this time.
At this point in the history of the republic, it should come as no surprise that people working in the Executive Branch tend to think the President has the power to use military force just about any time the he and his advisors deem it necessary or advisable. It is equally unsurprising that politicians and pundits tend to be hypocritical about this issuet: they think the President ought to have broad powers when they agree with the particular use to which it is being put, and they think those powers ought to be limited when they think the President is doing something foolish or unnecessary.
Reasonable people can disagree about just how much authority the Executive Branch ought to have, just as they can also disagree about the course of action the United States and others should have followed with regard to the situation in Libya. But let's be clear about the long-term effects of the de facto authority we are granting every President. It's a messy world out there, and there will always be some trouble somewhere that people will want Uncle Sam to fix. If you give a single individual the authority to decide when to order the world's mightiest military into battle, without having to consult anyone except his own appointed advisors, then you shouldn't be surprised when that mighty military gets used over and over and over.
Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country's armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else.
It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- but the president's somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he's on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America's reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a "preventive" operation. (Too bad we don't think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn't be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Based on the weekend's events, what do we now know about Libya?
1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly conducted by the United States, so the data actually understate the extent to which the initial operations were dominated by Uncle Sam. We are now told that allied forces are going to take over (most of) the mission, but patrolling the no-fly-zone is pretty easy work now that Libya's air defenses (which were never very good to begin with) have been largely if not entirely decimated. In short, this intervention fits the pattern of prior "coalitions of the willing": the United States does most of the work, and the other members are there mostly to provide diplomatic cover. That distribution of burdens is supposed to change now, but sticking to that plan will probably depend on whether the rebels keep making progress. If their campaign bogs down, Qaddafi's forces are able to regroup, or the British and French start feeling the pinch, look for more pressure on Washington to get back in the game.
2. The operation in Libya has quickly moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission and the intervening forces are more-or-less openly seeking to topple Qaddafi's regime. The New York Times reports that coalition air strikes against Qaddafi's forces are continuing, and making it possible for the rebels to advance, even though the immediate humanitarian concern (i.e., the threat of some sort of massacre in Benghazi) has now been removed.
This latest version of "mission creep" isn't surprising. Several Western leaders (including President Obama) have already called for Qaddafi to step down, the International Criminal Court says it is investigating possible crimes against humanity, and in any case his pariah status in the international community is well-earned. What is still not clear is the human price of this expanded mission. Ousting Qaddafi may still require a lot of bloody ground fighting, NATO airpower will be less valuable once it is a matter of urban warfare, the collapse of his regime could usher in a prolonged power vacuum, with lots of regrettable human consequences. It's possible that tribal leaders can work out some sort of post-Qaddafi political formula, but a benign outcome of that sort is hardly guaranteed.
3. Whether this was the right decision or not won't be known for awhile (remember that "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq?) The two situations are hardly identical, but the Iraqi case does remind us that there is a big difference between defeating a regime's armed forces and driving its leaders from power, and being able to stand up a new government that can establish order. There's still a real risk of prolonged internal disarray if we succeed, and the Libyan case is likely to teach other autocrats that giving up their WMD programs is a good way to leave themselves vulnerable to U.S.-led attack. Bottom line: the costs vs. benefits calculation here won't be possible for some time.
As readers know, I've questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I've thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I'm still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn't embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don't understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I'm wrong about a lot of this. We'll see.
John Moore/Getty Images
Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya -- and let's not kid ourselves, that's what they are trying to do -- did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?
I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.
The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of "foreign imposed regime change" going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account "selection effects" (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:
Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much
The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on
this issue but could not muster the sangfroid
to call the Europeans' bluff. France and Britain were out front early on
military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the
obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European
Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense
of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean
partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.
President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do. He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union. A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy's involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world.
The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya's, into submission.
Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in
Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and
handle this one without us. Yet the President could not leave well enough
alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership."
The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the
"coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating
one to unravel.
In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?
Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
I've been thinking about how the international community should deal with the Libyan civil war, and like the Obama administration, I'm finding it hard to come up with a policy that leaves me completely satisfied. I'd like to see Qaddafi's regime replaced by a government that is less brutal, capricious, and inefficient, as well as one that would be more responsive to the desires and welfare of the Libyan people. And the sooner the better. For this reason, I support the various measures that have been taken to condemn Qaddafi's actions and to freeze his assets. We should also be open to providing humanitarian aid (such as food relief) to rebel-controlled areas, should that become necessary to avoid a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
At the same time, I'm cognizant that it is easier to take on new military commitments than it is to relinquish them -- even in the best of circumstances -- and that external intervention in civil conflicts often has unpredictable and unforeseen consequences. So instead of firm prescriptions, here are a few observations that have struck me as I've pondered.
For starters, let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle. Libyan oil production (about 1.6 million barrels/day prior to the recent violence) is valuable but not decisive, and can be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia. Libya has no WMD (having been compelled to give up its various WMD programs by a protracted Western-led sanctions campaign), and it is not a significant military power. Qaddafi has no links to al Qaeda (in fact, he's been a target of al Qaeda sympathizers in the past) and few, if any allies in the rest of the world. Libya's population is less than 7 million, and its economy (apart from oil) is unimpressive. Despite Qaddafi's many unsavory qualities and hostile acts, most U.S. presidents ultimately concluded that he was not important enough to remove from power, though the Reagan administration did target his residence in a bombing raid back in the 1980s.
Thus, the U.S. (and international) interest here is humanitarian, not strategic, which does not by itself mean that we should do nothing. What is going on in Libya does not constitute genocide -- a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole category of people -- but the government's actions are clearly brutal, inhumane, and almost certainly involve war crimes. It thus falls squarely under the heading of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine (R2P), a new norm of humanitarian intervention promulgated with some fanfare a few years ago. R2P says "where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect" (my emphasis).
John Moore/Getty Images
When Hosni Mubarak briefly tried to crack down against the demonstrators in Egypt, I wrote:
Even if Mubarak manages to cling to power, his regime has been fatally compromised. If he uses massive force to suppress the popular movement, it will be damaged even more. Mubarak himself is 83 years old, and even a successful act of repression won't buy him (or his domestic allies) a lot of time. If the United States is seen as complicit in keeping him in power, it will solidify Arab anger and make our exalted rhetoric about democracy and human rights look like the basest hypocrisy."
Needless to say, this same logic applies with even more force in the case of Libya, where Qaddafi's brutal, narcissistic, and incoherent campaign of repression has been far more reprehensible than Mubarak's. I'm wary of direct U.S. military intervention there, but U.S. spokesmen should be condemning his actions in the strongest possible terms and looking into both a Security Council resolution and the creation of an international peacekeeping force to keep order there in a post-Qaddafi environment.
I'll have a lengthier comment on these upheavals tomorrow.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.