Friday, August 26, 2011

Who got it right on Libya? — Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, & Barack Obama in March

The Obama administration's decision to have the US support the revolutionaries in Libya, and to do so in a low-key way as just one member of a multilateral NATO-led coalition, was a gamble that could have turned out very badly (and, hypothetically, might still wind up looking like a mistake in the long term). But so far it seems to have been vindicated by the outcome. In the interest of trying to learn some lessons from this experience, as well as giving credit where credit is due, it's worth revisiting some of the arguments that were offered in favor of what proved to be the right policy.

=> On March 28 of this year, shortly after the beginning of the US/NATO military intervention in Libya, President Obama gave a speech explaining and justifying his administration's Libya policy. Here are some selections from Fred Kaplan's assessment and endorsement of Obama's approach:
President Barack Obama's speech on Libya Monday night was about as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been.

Some of his critics hoped he would outline a grand strategy on the use of force for humanitarian principles. Some demanded that he go so far as to declare what actions he would or would not take, and why, in Syria, Bahrain, and other nations where authoritarian rulers fire bullets at their own people. Still others urged him to spell out when the air war will stop, how we'll exit, who will help the Libyan people rebuild their country after Qaddafi goes, and what we'll do if he doesn't go.

These are all interesting matters, but they evade the two main questions, which Obama confronted straight on. First, under the circumstances, did the United States really have any choice but to intervene militarily? Second, for all the initial hesitations and continuing misunderstandings, would the actions urged by his critics (on the left and right) have led to better results? For that matter, have any presidents of the last couple of decades dealt with similar crises more wisely?

The answers to all those questions: no. [....]
Well, to be precise, the US did have a choice. What Kaplan means is that a decision to do nothing would have been a terrible mistake, and that under the circumstances postponing a decision would have been equivalent to making the wrong decision, irretrievably, by default.
Obama's main point was this: When, as he put it, "our interests and values are at stake," and when taking military action a) carries few risks, b) costs little, and c) may reap huge benefits, both political and humanitarian, then such action is worth taking even if the interests involved aren't quite vital.

This formulation is unsatisfying, both to the [self-styled foreign-policy] Realists (who shy from using force except in pursuit of [so-called] vital interests and, even then, only when the outcome is fairly certain and preponderant force is mustered) and to the neoconservatives (who leap to use force anywhere and everywhere in the cause of universal moral values). But it reflects a sense of realism with a small r.

The brutal fact that the neocons (and their brethren among liberal humanitarians) must face is that the United States is not as powerful as it once was. (In fact, it never was, but that's another story …) Even if Obama were inclined to promote democracy everywhere, he couldn't do it. [....]

And the fact that the Realists must face is that sometimes force is worth using even if the material interests at stake are meager. [JW: In this context, "realist" is a term that should never be used without scare-quotes or some other cautionary marking, as Kaplan has done, since it is a misleading and undeserved self-congratulatory technical label for a perspective that is often far from realistic in the everyday sense of the word.] [....]

In this case, Qaddafi was on the verge of quashing the rebels, and he said he would go door to door to kill them and their supporters like rats. The Arab League—the Arab League!—called on the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people. France and Great Britain—France and Great Britain!—seconded the motion. The U.N. Security Council took up the call (with much U.S. leadership), and since the Arabs had called for action, Russia and China—which didn't much like the notion—couldn't find an excuse for a veto, so it passed.

This is precisely the way the United Nations is supposed to work—a broad coalition of world powers summoning the will to engage in collective defense. [....] For those who accuse Obama of "dithering," it's worth noting, as he did Monday night, that President Bill Clinton waited a year—and stood by while a real massacre took place—before taking similar action against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. If Obama had waited for the citizens of Benghazi to be slaughtered by the thousands, his critics would be fuming, and rightly so.

The main reason they're fuming now anyway seems pretty clear. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote of Mitt Romney's opinion of Libya, he "supports the current mission, except for the part where it's run by Barack Obama."

There are still many uncertainties about the Libyan operation—and it's reasonable to argue that they should have been worked out more clearly or more fully before the bombs fell. [....] But the fate of Libya is the most troubling part of this whole operation. The country's a wreck. If Qaddafi does fall, there are no political institutions, no parties or social groupings, no levers for the makings of a civil society or a thriving economy. It's not even clear who the rebel leaders are, what they stand for, or whether they have any true following among the Libyan people (whoever they are). Granted, there wasn't much time for postwar planning; the intervention had to commence when it did, or Qaddafi would have won. Yet, while Libya is not Iraq, the crucial failing of the Iraq invasion was the lack of pos planning. If some countries or international bodies aren't prepared to step in quickly, with some sort of plan, Libya could easily plunge into chaos, anarchy, civil war, or worse.

Obama said in his speech Monday night that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would head to London on Tuesday to meet with "the Libyan opposition" and "consult with more than 30 nations" about "a transition to the future that the Libyan people deserve." We'll see. [....
=> And below is most of a piece that Christopher Hitchens wrote on March 14, before the NATO military intervention began with the last-minute bombing to save Benghazi. On the whole, it stands up rather well in retrospect. I've cut just a few bits, which seem to me peripheral, but if you like you can read >the whole thing.

(Let us note, by the way, that on this one Juan Cole and Christopher Hitchens were on the same side. For one alternative perspective, see here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Posted Monday, March 14, 2011, at 10:53 AM ET
Don't Let Qaddafi Win
Ignore the "realists." If we do nothing, the situation in Libya can only get worse.

By Christopher Hitchens

The stand of the "realist" school, and its objections to further or faster involvement in the Libya crisis, can be fairly summarized as follows:

1) Libya contains too many unknowns for us to be sure whom we would be supporting. We thus run the risk of breaching the principle of primo non nocere, or "first do no harm."

2) The relative calm of Tripoli, when contrasted with the upheaval in Benghazi, points to a historic east-west divide between the former provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which predates the formation of the modern Libyan state and might itself be destabilizing. The West might inadvertently ignite a sectarian regionalism culminating in fragmentation or partition.

3) The U.N. Security Council will not legalize the means with which to remove Muammar Qaddafi.

4) The Arab world is highly dubious about Western intervention and quick to take offense at anything smacking of a revived colonialism.

5) A "no-fly zone" is less simple than it sounds, since it necessarily involves a confrontation with a Russian-built air-defense system and would almost certainly necessitate the next step, which would be boots-on-the-ground military action and perhaps a period of occupation, for which the portents are not encouraging.

6) Political change in Libya should, in any case, be the work—as with the precedents of Tunisia and Egypt—of home-grown social forces.

The first two points are quite strong ones, but they become less persuasive unless one assumes the persistence in power of the Qaddafi clan. The actual evidence, however, is that Qaddafi senior has reached his Ceausescu moment: a full-dress (in the literal sense) meltdown into paranoia, megalomania, and delusion. His recent speeches and appearances have shown him stinking with madness and hysteria. His age and condition, at any rate, set a very sharp limit to the duration of his regime. If that regime implodes while he is still "in place," then all the grim consequences foreseen by the realists will be incurred in any case. Weapons will get into the wrong hands; divide-and-rule tactics (already a stock in trade) will intensify; religious and tribal passions will be deliberately inflamed. The main difference will be that we merely watched this happen. [....]

Further, to points (3) and (4): The Arab League has now itself broken with decades of torpor, declared the Qaddafi regime illegitimate, and called for the imposition of a no-fly zone. This unprecedented resolution, which is not contradicted by any measurable pro-Qaddafi opinion in the legendary "Arab street," seems to draw much of the sting from the realist concern about regional opinion. The Shiite population has not forgotten Qaddafi's role in the disappearance and presumed murder of Imam Musa Sadr; Saudi officials have been targeted by his death squads; many other states have cause to resent his criminal meddling over the years.

Qaddafi is also particularly disliked in Egypt, whose armed forces we have been sustaining at a high level of sophistication (and expense) for several decades. Should the Obama administration not now be pressing Egypt to give point to its Arab League vote and to take a share of responsibility for local law enforcement? It would be a great baptism of the new Egyptian republic. But, again, one hears only the sound of shuffling.

As to the feasibility of a no-fly zone, I pointed out several weeks ago what I couldn't avoid noticing on two brief visits to Libya: The entire country is in effect a long strip of coastline, with a vast hinterland of desert, bordering a sea, where the strongest force by far is the Sixth Fleet. This elementary point has been taken up and elaborated in a very considered—one might almost call it realist—Wall Street Journal article by James Thomas and Zachary Cooper. These two experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments emphasize that "[u]nlike in the Balkans and Iraq, Libya's most populated cities and airbases are situated near its coastline, with most situated less than 10 miles from the shore" (my italics). This sheer geographical fact gives us the option of using ship- and aircraft-based missiles without sending any planes into Libyan airspace, what the authors call a "stand-off no-fly zone." [....]

[JW: As it turned out, the NATO-led intervention went well beyond imposing a no-fly zone, though it stopped short of introducing foreign ground troops—and that was the right strategy.]

If the other side in this argument is correct, or even to the extent that it is correct, then we are being warned that a maimed and traumatized Libya is in our future, no matter what. That being the case, a piecemeal and improvised policy is the least pragmatic one. Even if Qaddafi temporarily turns the tide, as seems thinkable, and covers us all with shame for doing so, we will still have it all to do again. Let us at least hope that certain excuses will not be available next time.