Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Military Force in Libya

Why has the U.S. decided to intervene in Libya with military force? What are the primary factors that moved America to act? The answers to these questions might not be as simple and straightforward as the Obama administration has publicly suggested.

1. Certainly, one key factor was the human rights side of the conflict in Libya. Specifically, the U.S. and its allies aim to staunch the flow of violence and protect innocent Libyan civilians. But the tricky part is that there are other countries with equally, if not more, pressing concerns about violence and bloodshed. Just think about current conflicts in places like Darfur and the Ivory Coast. Why not intervene in these countries as well? So alone, human rights concerns do not make Libya a unique case. They are a necessary but not sufficient condition for intervention.

2. What makes Libya unique is its location. Libya is on the Mediterranean, proximate to Europe, a neighbor to Egypt, and at the intersection between the Arab and African worlds. These characteristics might not sound especially important to U.S. foreign policy–at least they do not to critics like Stephen Walt and Richard Haass. But in a way, that is not entirely a bad thing, because they do matter to Europe and the Arab Street, and that fact greased the wheels for both to agree to support/participate in the intervention. Which, in turn, eased some concerns that American officials had about enforcing a no-fly zone.

3. The decision to intervene was also shaped by an internal debate in American politics. This was a debate with neoconservatives (mostly congressional republicans) and liberal internationalists (congressional democrats and several Obama advisers) on one side and foreign policy realists (the military, other Obama advisers) on the other. While there are stark philosophical differences between neoconservatives and liberal internationalists, both groups supported the use of American military force in Libya on human rights grounds. The realists, meantime, were highly skeptical of intervening in the Libyan conflict, for several reasons–namely, concerns about fighting a war in a third Muslim country, mission creep, the (in)ability of the U.S. to extricate itself from war in a timely and low-cost manner, and so on. At the end of the day, by many accounts, it was the persuasive arguments of the liberal internationalists among Obama’s inner circle (Hillary Clinton, Michael McFaul, Samantha Power) that resolved the debate.

4. The Arab League’s blessing of a no-fly zone was crucial, arguably decisive, in this case. Importantly, it signified that Arab countries were willing to join the coalition in some capacity against Gaddafi. The military intervention, then, would not, and could not, be portrayed as a war against Islam or as evidence of a clash of civilizations. To the contrary, the Arab League's endorsement meant that intervention was the right thing to do, the morally acceptable course of action, to Muslims in the region. Based on the timing of the alleged shift in Obama's views, it seems likely that this information relaxed his initial inclination against military involvement in Libya.

Additionally, keep in mind that the Arab League endorsement communicated to the U.S. that Libya was an issue Washington could use to cultivate better relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Specifically, Team Obama could immediately, without prolonged diplomatic wrangling, attempt to align America's interests with the interests of people and governments in the region. For now Washington had a golden opening to show that, like many in the Middle East/North Africa, it supported anti-authoritarian forces and preferred the ouster of Gaddafi.

Now that the U.S. is militarily engaged in Libya, there are many questions that need to be answered. Preferably, most of these questions have already been answered, but given the scuttlebutt in news reports, that might not be the case, unfortunately. Here is a short sample list of questions.

1. What if the U.S. is unable to relinquish quickly its position of military leadership to France or Britain or NATO? Is the Obama administration prepared for this possibility?

2. How does the U.S. reconcile its stated policy goal of seeing Gaddafi leave office with its limited military objectives of stopping the violence and giving the rebels air cover? Can these two tenets be reconciled?

3.What if Gaddafi hangs on to power? (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has said this scenario is very possible.) What does the U.S. do in response?

4. Is regime change ruled out as a military option?

5. How high of a price is Team Obama willing to pay to reach its desired ends?

6. What happens if the Muslim and or Arab Worlds pulls their support for the military intervention? How would that impact America's policies on Libya?

7. Once Gaddafi is out of power, what kinds of political, economic, administrative responsibilities does the U.S. have to Libya?

8. Who are the rebels?

9. Why should Team Obama be confident that a loose collection of disorganized rebels can unify and then remove Gaddafi from power?

10. And even if the rebels are able to oust Gaddafi, can they put aside their own individual tribal grievances and interests and govern for all Libyans?

11. Does Team Obama know what kind of war they are participating in? Is this a civil war? Or is this a war for democracy? Or both? Or maybe something else?

a very sobering quote from Tony Karon of Time Magazine: "Many of the arguments for intervention derived from the Western experience in the Balkans during the 1990s, beginning with the breakup of Yugoslavia and culminating with the Kosovo conflict in 1999. It's worth remembering, then, that NATO troops were involved in Bosnia for 12 years, and there are still 8,700 NATO troops in Kosovo, which remains a ward of the West."

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