Smart people weighing in on the possibility of an intervention in Libya

Where does the debate stand now?

As Spencer Ackerman reports at Wired, some kind of military action by the west is looking increasingly likely.

The United Nations Security Council has already sanctioned Gadhafi and referred him to the International Criminal Court following his violent suppression of Libya’s revolutionary movement, creating the contours of a hardening international position against Gadhafi. And now most U.S. nationals in Libya have now fled, removing what the Obama administration has considered an impediment to action.

So here comes the Navy. The Enterprise carrier strike group, last seen hunting pirates, is in the Red Sea — and may sail through Suez to the Mediterranean — and the New York Times reports that an “amphibious landing vessel, with Marines and helicopters” are there as well. The Financial Times adds that the British are considering the use of the air base at Akrotiri in Cyprus as a staging ground to enforce a no-fly zone. Any envisioned military action is likely to be a multilateral affair, either blessed by the U.N. or NATO.

That seems to be the harshest policy yet envisioned — one explicitly discussed today by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (No one’s discussing a ground invasion.) For the time being, the Navy is simply moving assets into place in case President Obama decides to take more punitive measures against Gadhafi.

Andrew Exum of Abu Muqawama is shaking his head.

We are now paying the price for having waged two very difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that far too few Americans have participated in or been made to sacrifice for. I sometimes get accused of being a hawk because I have argued that resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns have represented our best chance to salvage bad situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but my experiences in both countries also taught me that a) force has its limits and b) we should all be very cautious about committing U.S. troops to combat operations in the first place. I’m horrified to read liberal interventionists continue to suggest the ease with which humanitarian crises and regional conflicts can be solved by the application of military power. To speak so glibly of such things reflects a very immature understanding of the limits of force and the difficulties and complexities of contemporary military operations.

MK of Ink Spots has has a different take on the intervention debate.

The last time this debate occurred, Ex put forth four basic questions that cover most of the important ground. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no one – including Ex – is publicly answering those questions with regard to Libya. Most of us (again, including Ex) just don’t know enough about the country, and what is currently going on there.

However, Ex, Elkus and others are all emphatically pointing out how complicated military intervention can be, and in the past have highlighted the potential for things to go wrong – very wrong, very quickly.

On this, they are absolutely correct, but it’s true of all military operations, regardless of the objectives. Repeating it ad nauseam is not really contributing to the debate. Certainly, those who underplay or obscure the very real dangers should be challenged. But those who draw false analogies with little if any resemblance in the specifics of the situation are equally guilty of misrepresenting reality. And the skeptics of intervention tend to stubbornly ignore examples of success in some very hard cases.

Moreover, those of us who’ve studied this particular type of problem in detail would warn that history has consistently demonstrated that when groups tip over into mass killing, very little short of military action has ever proven effective. Everything else takes too long to bite, or simply doesn’t bite hard enough to change the strategic calculus of the perpetrators. So instead of vague discussions of how difficult and costly it might be, or patronizingly dismissing the other side as not understanding the complexity of military operations, those who want to weigh in should be making specific arguments about the situation confronting us.

I will say this, though: a no-fly zone is unlikely to prove effective unless the perpetrators are only able to attack civilians from the air, or value their air assets above the goals they hoped to achieve through mass killing. Given that mass killing is usually justified or even triggered by a perception of existential threat from the victims, the latter is pretty unlikely. A pair of articles (to which Ex linked) highlight the limitations of no-fly zones in general, and with reference to Libya.

Ok, ok, ok. But what do LIBYANS want? (We should all be asking this.) The Guardian just ran a moving piece by a demonstrator. It begins with stories like this:

“Kiss my mum goodbye for me, and tell her that her son died a hero,” said my friend Ahmed, 26, to the first person who rushed to his side after he was shot in a Tripoli street.

Two days later, my friend Ahmed died in the hospital. Just like that.

That tall, handsome, funny, witty, intellectual young man is no more. No longer will he answer my phone calls. Time will stand still on his Facebook account for ever.

Betraying my age, I’m going to admit that the line above brought me to tears.

This is the kind of story you get out of Tripoli these days. Hundreds of them, perhaps even thousands. The kind of stories that you could never imagine on your doorstep.

Like when you hear a six-month-old baby has been murdered, you just hope with all your heart that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s claims turn out to be true that there’s precious little violence here, that al-Jazeera fabricated the story. You hope that infant is right now sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. Like when you hear of someone from Tajura who had a bullet in his head for two days before dying, leaving behind a bereaved wife and child. You have been praying to God that this father be there playing with his child. But the photos, the video show you the cold truth. The wails that need no translation: loved ones being snatched away by death. All humans understand that scream.

But the author’s message is this:

Don’t get me wrong. I, like most Libyans, believe that imposing a no-fly zone would be a good way to deal the regime a hard blow on many levels; it would cut the route of the mercenary convoys summoned from Africa, it would prevent Gaddafi from smuggling money and other assets, and most importantly it would stop the regime from bombing weapons arsenals that many eyewitnesses have maintained contain chemical weapons; something that would unleash an unimaginable catastrophe, not to mention that his planes might actually carry such weapons.

Nevertheless, one thing seems to have united Libyans of all stripes; any military intervention on the ground by any foreign force would be met – as Mustafa Abud Al Jeleil, the former justice minister and head of the opposition-formed interim government, said – with fighting much harsher than what the mercenaries themselves have unleashed.

Nor do I favour the possibility of a limited air strike for specific targets. This is a wholly popular revolution, the fuel to which has been the blood of the Libyan people. Libyans fought alone when western countries were busy ignoring their revolution at the beginning, fearful of their interests in Libya. This is why I’d like the revolution to be ended by those who first started it: the people of Libya.

Read the whole thing, but keep in mind that a no-fly zone is a military intervention, whether Libyans see it as one or not, and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya would almost certainly draw the intervening parties into an air war.

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