March 26, 2011
Libya: Through the Glass DarklyBy J. Robert Smith
An odd, loose coalition of some liberals and conservatives has formed in favor of U.S. military intervention in Libya. The New Republic's John Judis and the Weekly Standard's William Kristol are in agreement: keep launching the Tomahawks and, maybe, dislodge the venal Muammer Gaddafi. Polls on Americans' support for military action against Gaddafi range from the high sixties to a plurality in the high forties. Public opinion, as we know, though, is fickle and can change with the weather.
The problem with military action is never its initiation; the problem lies in the follow up. Rarely are initial attacks against an enemy deciders, as Americans have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. Initial overwhelming force is an opener, not a closer.
It's all well and good to want to shield Libyan innocents or oust Gaddafi (not a stated aim) or promote democracy, but Tomahawks and good intentions go only so far. The truth is that without a clear end-game, and without staying power, actions in Libya are likely to fail.
If actions fail in Libya, what are the consequences? What if the allies tire of the expense and commitment of enforcing a no-fly zone -- or any other type of zone? What if Gaddafi hangs on? Or what if the horrible Gaddafi is succeeded not by western-style democrats but by a more horrible tyrant -- or, worse, by Iranian-backed jihadists?
These questions are legitimate. Not only is there scant indication that President Obama has thought through consequences in Libya, but his own words show that he has no intention of committing the nation to following up initial attacks with a long, hard slog. A long, hard slog means working for Libya's transformation -- provided there's any real chance of succeeding.
The President has declared that American participation in the Libyan intervention will be brief, a matter of days (really, at least, weeks). Forget American boots-on-the-ground. We'll leave it to the United Nations and our allies to do the heavy-lifting moving forward. Mission accomplished.
But we know about the United Nations; its hallmarks are incompetence, corruption, impotence, and fecklessness. Remember Darfur? The President is entrusting Libya's fate to a body that includes rogues that equal or surpass Muammer Gaddafi for their evil; some are represented on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
And let's be honest about the French; their track record at winning fights is poor, at least since Napoleon Bonaparte left the scene. The Brits are better, but Europeans generally have lost the stomach for war -- and occupations. A protracted engagement -- military and otherwise -- in Libya is likely to be met by flagging public support in Europe and backlashes from the left in France and Britain and elsewhere. Europeans aren't above cutting and running -- in their own dignified way, of course.
There is the chance that the President is deceiving the America people. It could be that Mr. Obama's declarations of a short American involvement in Libya mask his determination to continue U.S. participation with no definitive end. After all, Mr. Obama, in his own ham-handed way, has hung on in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite his '08 campaign rhetoric.
What's gained currency recently is that the Middle East is in the opening stages of democratic revolutions. It's almost taken for granted that the current unrest in Egypt will lead to democracy and the rule of law. Some boosters of the Libyan intervention suggest the same thing is possible there.
There are certainly democratic factions in Egypt and Libya. But there are other factions, including extremist Islamic elements -- Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood for one -- that are better positioned, more adept, and flatly ruthless in exploiting unrest to seize power.
It's naïve to think that Libyan democrats are capable of winning the day for freedom and democracy with a no-fly zone. Again, take a close look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq's fragile democracy has had the ongoing, on-ground backing of the United States. It remains to be seen if Iraq's democracy survives scheduled American troop withdrawals this summer. The Karzai regime in Afghanistan is weak and, reputedly, corrupt. An independent, democratic Afghanistan is nowhere near fruition.
Libyan freedom and democracy aren't going to be won by just dropping bombs. Libya isn't Kosovo. There's always a danger in fighting the last war - or attempting to replay the last intervention. A no-fly zone didn't bring about the fall of Saddam Hussein or facilitate the rise of democracy in Iraq. Libya, to have a chance at genuine change, needs an on-ground commitment, similar to what the United States has done in Iraq and is doing in Afghanistan. Mind you, it's just a chance.
However solemn the U.N. declarations, whatever the bravado of the French and British, whatever the capabilities of the United States military, transforming Libya isn't a short haul proposition. Breaking furniture and making Gaddafi scurry from hiding place to hiding place in the desert are just opening acts.
If the opening acts aren't followed up, if a sustained commitment isn't made to Libya, Libyans might find themselves in a worse predicament (it's conceivable). And perceptions of America in the Middle East will suffer. A United States perceived as part of a failed Libyan operation is a United States seen as weak among Middle Easterners -- and the Iranians. That prospect can't be good for American national security.
The United States does have compelling national security interests in the Middle East. Islamic extremism is the wellspring of terrorism against the United States. But as Jed Babbin wrote in the American Spectator, "the war the terror-sponsoring nations wage against us can only be won by forcing those nations to cease their support of Islamic terrorism."
Babbin has hit the bull's eye. Gaddafi is a minor player in the terrorism racket when compared to Syria's Assad and Iran's mullahs. American policy needs to be primarily focused on ending Syrian and Iranian sponsorship of terror. Close Syrian and Iranian terror sponsorships and Gaddafi likely tumbles in the aftermath. But confronting Iran and Syria would take real American leadership and resolve; neither are qualities that Barack Obama holds in high esteem.