Foreign Policy

A 'Worthwhile Intervention' With a Good Chance of Making Things Worse

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Two articles in yesterday's New York Times will make you scratch your head over the justification for the U.S.-led war against Libya. In a "news analysis," the paper's Cairo bureau chief, David D. Kirkpatrick, wonders, "Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war?" The thrust of the piece is that no one, least of all the people making decisions in Washington, really knows. Kirkpatrick allows that Muammar al-Qaddafi may well be right that violent chaos will follow his departure. On the op-ed page, former Wall Street Journal editor Max Boot, now a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, likewise highlights the risks and uncertainties associated with Barack Obama's war of choice:

Colonel Qaddafi's forces are operating in urban areas where it is extremely difficult to use airpower without killing civilians….

Will the rebels be able to root out Qaddafi loyalists? If not, are we prepared to use Western ground forces? So far President Obama has ruled out that option, which runs the danger of a protracted stalemate. Colonel Qaddafi could simply cling to power, while international support for the whole operation frays.

Even if Colonel Qaddafi steps down — an outcome that I believe we must now seek but that hasn't been declared as a formal aim — the problems hardly end….

The country has had an active Islamist movement that has sent many fighters to Iraq. The collapse of Colonel Qaddafi's police state would mean greater freedom for all Libyans, including jihadists who could try to instigate an insurgency as they did in Iraq.

The danger is compounded by Libya's tribalism. Behind the thin facade of a modern state lies a long, seething history of rivalries among 140 tribes and clans, about whom we know little. Colonel Qaddafi has kept them in check with a combination of brutal repression and generous payoffs. Once he's gone, the tribes could fight one another for the spoils of Libya's oil industry; as in Iraq, some could form alliances with Al Qaeda.

And so on. The really striking thing is that Boot was (and is) an enthusiastic advocate of taking sides in Libya's civil war. He calls it "a worthwhile intervention for both strategic and humanitarian reasons." But complications like the ones Boot and Kirkpatrick outline are a strong argument for avoiding military entanglements except when they are clearly necessary to protect national security. When in doubt, stay out.

A week before the U.N. Security Council, usurping Congress, "authorized" the U.S. air assault on Libya,  Matt Welch warned us about the unintended consequences.

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  1. So far President Obama has ruled out that option, which runs the danger of a protracted stalemate.

    Obama’s recent foreign policy behavior indicates that “ruling out” a course of action just means it will have to wait till the weekend.

    1. Yeah, before the 2008 election, Big O ruled out an individual mandate as part of his health care proposal. See how well that went.

      1. He also ruled out the use of military forces without congressional approval. We see how that went.

        1. He left a voicemail with John Kerry.

  2. The NATO/UN coalition looks to be falling apart.

    Of course if it does I see Obama/Hilary still going ahead with it anyway.

    Comparing Lybia to Iraq Obama is worse in all things then Bush. He created a smaller Coalition, he did not go to congress, he made no case to the UN, and he has not formed a solid coalition. In fact I read today that he has not even talked to the UK’s prime minister.

    The only hope is that Libya is somehow easily taken….but when you read things like this:

    The danger is compounded by Libya’s tribalism. Behind the thin facade of a modern state lies a long, seething history of rivalries among 140 tribes and clans, about whom we know little.

    I see no hope for an easy win.

    I am sure among the rebels there are some pro democratic groups….but to jump from that obvious point to the conclusion that we are in an easy battle for the liberation of Libya’s poeple with only Qckadaffi in the way is a huge huge leap.

    Supporters of this war are gambling on long odds.

    1. This morning’s WSJ says he talked to UK PM Cameron. Probably said, “My royal wedding invitation didn’t arrive yet. And can you get me on the Old Course at St. Andrew next time I visit you?”

  3. Obama never “ruled out” intervention in Libya during the past few weeks, although there was resistance (until the point of preventing certain massacre). Tulpa, do you read the news before you comment?
    Its incredibly frustrating, how much westerners are underestimating the ability of Arab countries to form democracies. You don’t see jihad or religious-direction anywhere in these demonstrations. The totalitarian power in Libya is necessary to fall, to prove that even more tribal-led countries in the middle east can democratize and hopefully help Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria to follow. (By the way, the rural-based tribal culture in Libya has become less significant in recent decades of heavy urbanization)

    1. Its incredibly frustrating, how much westerners are underestimating the ability of Arab countries to form democracies.

      Actually i am assuming they will form with the exact same difficulty that Western democracies formed.

      Which is to say they involve bloody, expensive and long protracted civil wars that have a deep negative probability of succeeding when outside actors try to influence their formation.

      But I guess you have some new insight about how long standing Arab tribal sociaties are better at forming democracies then western cultures are.

      1. Good points Joshua, but I’m going to play the “modern age” card here and posit that the inter-connectivity of our increasingly networked publics dramatically shifts the dynamic (although I believe the better aspects [rapid grassroots organization] far outweigh the worse [24hr punditry]) – and I suggest this, only on the basis that accountability and political consequence have risen steeply. This is evident in how nonviolent resistance has shown to be much more rapid in effect.

        Ok, I’ll admit that I’m optimistic about the ability of Arab countries to quickly work thru civil conflict in creating democracies, but I think Libya’s low population and its large shift from rural to urban (along with the rest of the world) gives it a good advantage.

        1. inter-connectivity of our increasingly networked publics dramatically shifts the dynamic

          Wow.

          Oh, the Talibam say, “Hi!”

        2. a few other advantages:
          Libya is not bordered by hotbeds of terrorist activity, but by friendly and democratizing countries. Tribes of Libya do have the ability to collaborate, as they did against Italian colonists. Libya does not have the same sectarian conflicts of the Persian Gulf countries that it is erroneously being compared to. The int’l coalition does have the ability to limit its involvement to preventing massacre, leaving [peaceful] politicking to the Libyan people.
          Also, the US involvement (*behind* the drumbeats of France and UK) is clearly not open-ended, evidenced by the lack of any nation-building rhetoric, although “protecting civilians at all costs” was a bit abstract in the *UN* resolution.

          “Mr. Obama reiterated that the United States would yield its lead role to France, Britain and other countries in the coming days.” -nytimes today

  4. I keep wondering if Obama actually believes he’ll get a second term. Although TIMMAY!! and The Bernanke say the economy is recovering like gang busters and that there is no inflation – no one, outside of the usual blue team fellatio squad, actually believes that. We can expect oil prices to remain volitile for at least the rest of ’11 and part of ’12 since the Arabs aren’t going to settledown soon. We can expect shocks from the Japan earthquake to work themself through the economy so no good news there.

    And now he’s gone and gotten himself in an open-ended military adventure the makes him look dithering, stupid and cowboyish.

    For all the GOP hacks like Romney and Newt, people are going to be rushing to the polls in November 2012, like last November, to throw this guy out.

    1. usual blue team fellatio squad

      That made mr LOL.

    2. And now he’s gone and gotten himself in an open-ended military adventure the makes him look dithering, stupid and cowboyish.

      You are neglecting the possibility that Obama is jumping into this war on the very premise that it will help him win a 2nd term.

      1. Ok i admit that is a big jump…but i have little doubt from reading Tulpa’s quotes from yesterday that Joe from Lowell thinks this will help Obama win in 2012…and i would even go farther and say that others on team blue are thinking the same thing.

        I should note that i do not think this will help or hinder his reelection bid. I have heard plenty of times that Bush won in 2004 because we were at war, and it is based on the fact that war time presidents rarely lose reelection during times of war.

        My counter to this is that Presidents rarely lose reelection during times of peace as well…and the US is all to often at war with somebody.

  5. This fuckup goes back a lot longer. Why The Fuck did they have to clear the Italians out? Goddamn Churchill. Coulda beaten the Germans faster and been in better position v. the Russians if they’d’ve just left Italy alone. Shoulda given Italy a piece of France too, even if they didn’t want it!

  6. I mean like package deal. “You get to keep Libia if you take a chunk of Riviera along with it.” And if that wasn’t enough, sweeten the deal by putting in for Mussolini with the Nobel committee for the peace prize.

  7. Why did we name this mission after a military voyage that lasted 10 years and only one guy survived from?

    1. Prescience?

    2. only one guy survived from?

      My guess is that in 2021 Obama plans on assassinating the president….or at least kill some guy who hit on his wife at a cocktail party.

  8. I don’t think the glaring disparity between what candidate Obama said, and what President Obama is doing in Libya is lost on the electorate – he may have a five minute attention span, but most people have one a little longer.

    He’s a clown, operating 5,000 leagues out of his depth.

  9. informedcitizen

    Take a look at some literary and photographic studies of Libya. It’s a backward, Marxist paradise, ruled by secret police gangsters and their snitches. If Gaddafi goes, violence is coming, and how.

    1. What’s that you say?

      Imminent power vacuum?

      Tribal warfare?

      More chaos than the US can contain?

      Why sure, I’ll take three! (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya)

  10. MyLife.com has “three Qaddafi’s in Tripoli”, but I have to join as a member to get details.

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