We could be at war in Libya soon


It seems odd we could be considering a military intervention in a foreign war and not have it dominate the headlines. Goes to show just how big a disaster is occurring in Japan (present perfect tense because we still don’t know how big the nuclear disaster is going to be), and having our basic rights under assault not only in Wisconsin, but also such far away places as St. Paul and Minneapolis, is a very big deal.

Well, we have to multitask, because as dan.burns noted yesterday, the Libyan rebellion could be just days from collapse and the slaughter of the defeated could be on a scale hard to fathom. If the outside world is going to do anything, it has a very short time to make a decision, and doing nothing is a decision. It looks like the usual situation where everyone’s waiting for the United States to make the decision, which means Obama gets just a short time to decide. If we in the general public want to be heard before a decision is made, that means speaking up now.

Going to war, or taking actions should of all-out war but potentially leading there, is maybe as serious a decision as a country makes. I’ve posted a couple times about Libya to share my thought process as I try to sort through things for myself, and to encourage some thought rather then the reflexes we all have. On the one hand, I described the defense hawks as, “for these guys, bombing is the tax cuts of foreign policy. On the left side, it’s hard to talk us into military intervention. OK, maybe I’m generalizing my own reaction to the possibility of using force somewhere. It’s just that after opposing the invasion of Iraq so strongly, after cutting my politically active teeth on opposing Reagan’s wars in Central America, it’s difficult to trust the president, any president, to just add on another war and say he knows more than we do and rah rah go get the bad guys. We know presidents who really want a war will misrepresent things. We know that the press can be more accurate than intelligence.

No, I prefer to speak up with my own opinion, preferably one that’s informed and coherent. So here’s where I see it coming to: there are risks in establishing a no-fly zone. There are risks in doing nothing. We actually have experience with both choices, so we’re not operating purely on guesswork. Time to decide is really short. Information is murky, might be wrong, might have changed.  On the other hand, if Obama really wanted to go in, he’d have found a reason and gone in, and he appears to be reluctant. That’s reassuring. They’re thinking about it. I’m guessing the administration is trying to figure out whether establishing the no-fly zone or staying entails the bigger risks. That’s what we need to think through also.

I went through risks of a no-fly zone in more detail in my prior post on the subject, so I’ll keep this brief. If we do this:

—Libyan rebels may assume we’ll go further if necessary, like providing arms, conducting air strikes, or what I dubbed the Shores of Tripoli option, meaning sending in the troops on the ground, presumably taking the capital, just like in the Marine Hymn and the Tripolian War. If they assume we’ll go further, they may take unreasonable risks, perhaps necessitating our greater involvement.

—There’s a risk other governments won’t participate enough to mitigate our costs and risks.

—Our armed forces are stretched and tired after all these years in Iraq and Afghanistan, so even if they can handle this extra strain, we may not be able to handle another simultaneous crisis, or perhaps Libya or another crisis will force an early withdrawal from Iraq (actually, I’m OK with leaving ahead of schedule) or a bigger drawdown from Afghanistan than planned (maybe that’s a good idea anyway).

—Gadaffi could still win. I don’t see how, but he looked like his regime was collapsing just a week ago. Then not only did resources go to waste, but we really look unable to handle a difficult situation, and he and other dictators might feel freer to start something.

—Someone else could intervene on Gadaffi’s side creating a wider war. That seems very unlikely given that such an intervention would require taking on us as well as the Libyan rebels, but governments make bad decisions sometimes.

—Opposition movements in other dictatorships may feel they can resort to arms because someone will intervene to save them if they can’t win.

—No-fly zones are low risk for the armed forces, but it’s not zero, and if our involvement escalates, the risk grows.

—The rebels might turn out to have little in common besides opposition to the current dictator. They may fracture, some may be Islamists, some may be military dictator wannabes. Democracy is possible, but not guaranteed.

However, there are risks to not getting involved, and we have to consider these too:

—If the rebels lose, as looks likely, Gadaffi will be free to deal with them how he wants. His record with opponents is prison, torture, and large scale executions. This is far bigger than any opposition he’s faced before, and it’s seems reasonable to assume that if he wins, the killing will be massive.

—There are also large numbers of refugees crossing the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. These are mostly foreign workers, but Libyans will join them as the fighting continues and if Gadaffi wins, the flow of refugees could get much bigger. The money we saved by not having a no-fly zone could go to humanitarian aid. The host countries just overthrew their own dictators and are still unstable, so we don’t know the risks of a refugee problem on top of that. What was just gained in terms of hopes for democratic change could be lost.

—Other dictators may look at the dictators who fell in Egypt and Tunisia, and the one who survived in Libya, and decide that Gadaffi is the example to follow. He may have reduced his country to rubble, but a strange aspect of human psychology is some people prefer to rule the rubble than not rule the standing building. Dictators seem prone to such thinking. Dictators in the Middle east must especially be watching.

—There could be a wider war, which yes, I cited as a risk of getting involved. I have trouble seeing a triumphant Gadaffi moving on to attack a neighbor, but I could see Tunisian or Egyptian dictator wannabes with loyal army units deciding that the lesson if power can be had if you have and apply enough force. I could also see a stalemated Libyan civil war being a lure to neighbors who see an interest in one side or the other. A quick victory by the rebels might be the best hope of keeping the fighting brief.

Let’s acknowledge some things that have changed since the war started. I wrote in the first post about how Libyans wanted to do this themselves and not become another Iraq. I’m sure they still don’t want to become Iraq, but they have definitely changed their minds on foreign help as the war has reversed, so I’m convinced a no-fly zone will have popular support in Libya, regardless of popularity in the countries doing the enforcing. The rebels have also formed something that looks like a nascent government, and France and the Arab League have already recognized it as the government. If anyone’s concern is that one government shouldn’t back uprisings against other governments, it’s possible to recognize the rebels as the government, and then we’re helping a government against an armed force trying to overthrow it — that may be only a patina of legality, but it is at least a patina.

If the concern is foreign countries shouldn’t interfere in someone else’s civil war, keep in mind that Gadaffi’s mercenaries are presumably there with the approval of their governments, at least by their not objecting. It also seems suspicious that Gadaffi was able to turn the military situation around so quickly. Did someone already intervene on Gadaffi’s side? My suspicion falls on Algeria. It’s a dictatorship which has relied on force to stay in power in the past, it has its own opposition movement it would presumably not like to see encouraged by yet another neighboring regime falling, it borders Libya in the West where Gadaffi has mostly retained control so it should have been possible to slip him some help without detection. So if the issue is foreign intervention in a civil war, that genie seems to be out of the bottle already (just a common expression that fits, no ethnic reference intended).

Possibly the biggest change occurred yesterday, when some of Bahrain’s neighbors rolled in the tanks to prevent Bahrain’s people from changing their government. Despite being met with deadly force, protesters continued and they’ve been growing. Would the neighboring absolute monarchies have helped the absolute monarch of Bahrain without the rest of the world being distracted by Libya and Japan? Can’t tell. That these same governments voted as members of the Arab League to endorse a no-fly zone in Libya doesn’t seem consistent. Maybe it has to do a close identification with other monarchies in the Persian Gulf. We could probably go on with maybies, but it does seem that if military intervention to help people who attempted a peaceful revolution is wrong, then intervening to help the king who shoots his own people for daring to demand respect for their rights is sure wrong.

America has at times intervened to help dictators keep or take power from democrats. Does that mean we can’t speak up when we see it happening, or does it mean we have to speak up and point out that we’ve done this ourselves, so we see exactly what’s going on? Maybe Bahrain is a completely separate problem from Libya, connected only in that both peaceful revolutions (to begin with at least — we’ll see what happens in Bahrain) were inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.

In terms of examples, we have Rwanda as an example of where we didn’t intervene, and Bosnia as an example of where we did. I doubt we could have done much about Rwanda, but the regret of officials in the Clinton administration suggests that what we could do, we didn’t. We did establish a no-fly zone in Bosnia, and it wasn’t enough. We did end up having to escalate. I wasn’t pleased with every decision the Clinton administration made in Bosnia, but that it turned out better than Rwanda seems inarguable. We can’t reasonably expect to agree with every move the Obama administration makes in Libya, but for now the question is between trying something, and trying nothing.

I’m also thinking of a difference between Libya and Iraq at the time of Bush’s invasion. Both were ruled by dictators with little hesitation about killing their own people. To get rid of Saddam, we visited the horrors of war upon Iraq. Was Iraq better off for it? No. They have a better government now, but hundreds of thousands were killed and millions were turned into refugees. However, Libya is already experiencing the horrors of war. There are already huge numbers of refugees. In terms of avoiding such calamities — too late.

Here’s where I’m leaning now — establish the no-fly zone. The risks of going in are considerable, but less than the risks of doing nothing. (A side note: the more I think about the uncertainties of the position I’m coming to adopt, the more amazed I get that proponents of invading Iraq ever thought it would be quick and simple, and the more convinced I become they thought only about how to sell the war and not a bit about whether they should.) I’m becoming convinced the killing will be far more if Gadaffi wins. Even a stalemate with prolonged fighting would be less murderous. It isn’t just about Libya, but it’s about the other Middle Eastern dictators, who are going to take a lesson from Gadaffi’s fate. We don’t want that lesson to be kill as many people as you have to, and you’ll stay in power. That could mean a quick end to what I’ve heard dubbed “Arab Spring”, referring back to the “Prague Spring” of 1968, though that’s not a propitious namesake. From a humanitarian point of view, that would be a disaster. The best thing all around is a quick win for the Libyan rebels. That would mean the least killing, the least likelihood of war spreading, and the shortest commitment for us (militarily — we might have a prolonged commitment in terms of reconstruction aid, but that’s fine; civilian aid is a bargain compared to military spending), and the best chance to sustain democracy movements throughout the region.

One last note. I thought for just a moment about putting up a poll, but just a moment. A quick voluntary poll question would defeat half the point, that this is more complicated than just do this or do that, even though I’m saying we need to give our opinions to the administration right now if we’re to influence the decision.