Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who got it right on Libya? — Marc Lynch in June

The Libyan revolution against the Qaddafi dictatorship and the intervention of NATO countries (plus Qatar) in support of the revolution seem to have turned out a lot more successfully than many people expected and predicted (though we still should worry about the aftermath). I certainly won't claim that I felt confident about this outcome myself, but I didn't try to pretend otherwise. However, a wide range of analysts, pundits, and political figures made confident predictions of disaster and futility that turned out to be quite wrong. Others got it right--on the basis of arguments and analysis, not just guesswork–and in those cases it makes sense to give credit where credit is due. It's not just a question of being fair. Some retrospective attention to the competing analysis (whether or not we agree fully with any of them) might help us make more informed and intelligent judgments about future controversies ... though, of course, the facts and issues involved are never going to be precisely the same..

A few days ago I noted that Juan Cole "has 'unabashedly' sided with the 'liberation movement' in Libya and argued that it deserved support and assistance from the outside world–a position that produced consternation and dismay among many of his usual fans, who expected him to share their knee-jerk opposition to any kind of western involvement or intervention." (He responded forcefully and convincingly to that kind of thinking in his Open Letter to the Left on Libya,) So Cole is entitled to feel some vindication, and indeed he feels vindicated.

Marc Lynch of Washington University, who blogs as Abu Aardvark, is another well-known analyst/pundit on the Middle East whose failure to reflexively oppose NATO intervention surprised many of his usual fans. But his analysis and predictions (after some ambivalent waffling in March, at the very beginning) have stood up very well. Here are selections from an item Lynch posted on June 18, 2011:
This is a good time to realize that the war in Libya was very much worth fighting and that it is moving in a positive direction. A massacre was averted, all the trends favor the rebels, the emerging National Transitional Council is an unusually impressive government in waiting, and a positive endgame is in sight. This is a war of which the administration should be proud, not one to be hidden away from public or Congressional view.

I supported the intervention in Libya reluctantly, in the face of strong evidence of [an] impending humanitarian catastrophe and an unprecedented, intense Arab public demand for Western action. I believe fully that the NATO intervention prevented a major massacre in Benghazi, which would have guaranteed the survival of the Qaddafi regime. The retaliation campaign which followed the regime's survival would have been bloodier still. There would have been a chilling effect across the region, encouraging violent repression and demoralizing challengers. And the impact on America's image in the region of failing to act and allowing the massacre would have been profound. Many of the same people (in the Arab world and in the U.S.) who now lambaste Obama for intervening would have been editorializing about his betrayal of his promises to the Muslims of the world and his indifference to Muslim lives.

[....] I acknowledge that strong arguments could be and have been made about the limited U.S. national interests directly at stake in Libya, and the real dangers of overstretch, but still believe that the importance of preventing a preventable massacre and helping to facilitate real change in Libya outweigh them. (The argument that this was a war for Libyan oil strikes me as silly, given Qaddafi's enthusiasm for selling it.)

The prevailing view seems to be that Libya has become a quagmire, a grinding stalemate with no end in sight. This is wrong. While nothing is resolved yet, and Qaddafi may still be able to hang on, all the trends are in the favor of the rebels. There has been a growing cascade of states recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, as Qaddafi's support dries up even in Africa. There are more and more defections from the Qaddafi regime to the NTC, and -- crucially -- virtually no examples of anyone moving in the opposite direction. The rebels are holding territory, and the battle has moved to Tripoli itself. Qaddafi appears to be running out of money. Finally, the NTC itself (several of whom I've had the opportunity to meet) appears to be an impressive group, with serious technocrats attending to key shadow ministries and a real effort to include and represent all parts of Libya.

The Libya campaign certainly hasn't been perfect -- far from it! -- and many people had strong, legitimate reasons to oppose the intervention. But there were also strong reasons for intervening. Much good was done. Many lives were saved, both immediately in Benghazi and over the longer-term across Libya. The international intervention has helped Libyans to seize the chance for a more democratic and open state which respects the rule of law and human rights. And it was done with NATO in the lead and with serious diplomatic and popular Arab support. It was worth the fight.

I wish that the Obama administration had obtained Congressional support for the campaign long before it reached today's crisis point. But now that we are here, I hope that the administration will make a full-throated case for the Libya intervention-- why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.
=> As Lynch suggests, someone else who ought to feel vindicated by this outcome is President Obama. It was Britain and France, not the US, that led the charge for NATO intervention–for which credit is due to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. And it's clear from numerous reports that the Obama administration, including Obama himself, was deeply ambivalent and uncertain about getting involved. But in the end Obama did decide to commit the US to join in an international intervention by a coalition of some but not all NATO members (plus Qatar). Since then, US involvement has taken the form of "leading from behind." The first military action came at the very last moment, when Qaddafi's forces were on the verge of crushing the last remaining stronghold of the rebellion in Benghazi, and after the first few weeks Britain and France have done the heavy lifting in providing air support for the rebels, while Qatar seems to have played a significant role in training and supplying rebel fighters. The US, for its part, has played an effective role in getting international support for the intervention, including formal resolutions from the UN and the Arab League, and maintaining diplomatic and economic pressure on the Qaddafi regime. This intervention has been a genuinely multilateral operation, and the administration has deliberately avoided having the US take a conspicuously predominant role. This strategy took six months to work, and must have generated a lot of anxiety within the administration, but they stayed the course unflappably, and in the end the gamble worked. An e-mail message I got from Victor Lidz nicely summed up the appropriate conclusions:
One thought I would like to add is that there should be congratulations to the Obama administration for their approach to this situation – not jumping in to impose another war on our country and the Islamic world, but allowing Libyans to take the lead while assuring that NATO would provide effective support. Just a week or ten days ago, the administration was being blamed for a policy that had been ineffective, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, for entangling the US in another unending war. Both criticisms now seem profoundly wrong despite the many uncertainties about what the longer-term outcome will be. What has happened is that the Libyans have won a new opportunity for themselves…
Right. (And by the way, according to the estimates I have read, the direct financial costs of this operation for the US have been about $1 billion. That's a lot of money, to be sure, but by comparison with the ongoing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–just the weekly costs, let alone the total costs–it's chicken feed.)

=>All of that has to do with the substantive policy and its concrete outcomes. The main reservations that need to be added involve procedural concerns about the way that the US government has pursued this policy. From a legal and constitutional perspective, the whole process has been unfortunate, disappointing, embarrassing, and in some ways disgraceful. It reflects badly on the Obama administration, on Congress, and on the overall health of our political system, and it may have some troubling long-term implications. More on these matters another time ...

–Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Perhaps it's worth adding this tweet that Eli Lake, not exactly a big fan of Obama himself, directed at right-wing Obama-bashers: