Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cases pro and con on Libya Intervention

My blogging will be a bit constrained in the days ahead (blew out an Achilles tendon yesterday; surgery impending), but let me at least point out a couple of (mostly) well reasoned essays pro-  and con- the US/NATO intervention in Libya.

Today, Juan Cole at Informed Comment takes on those on the Left who oppose the intervention, at the end, urging the Left "to learn to chew gum and walk at the same time" (a comment for which some of the ensuing comments appropriately take him to task).  Cole basically makes the case that (1) it was morally imperative that the world stop Qaddafi from sending in tanks to crush the rebels in Benghazi, and (2) the history of the modern political Left does make room for such intervention (in support of which he cites - not especially appositely, in my opinion) the American-volunteer Lincoln Brigade that took part in Spain's civil war of the 1930s.  Prof. Cole also argues that it's '"bizarre" to argue that this intervention is motivated by the West's desire to dominate Libya's oil.
 There is no advantage to the oil sector of removing Qaddafi. Indeed, a new government may be more difficult to deal with and may not honor Qaddafi’s commitments. There is no prospect of Western companies being allowed to own Libyan petroleum fields, which were nationalized long ago. Finally, it is not always in the interests of Big Oil to have more petroleum on the market, since that reduces the price and, potentially, company profits.

Well, perhaps.  But it can't have escaped Obama's notice that events in Libya and elsewhere in the region have pushed up gasoline prices in the US, to the point that they're a featured story on lots of local TV news.  Americans are worried about where that's going.  Worried Americans aren't likely to vote for the president's party come next year.  This may well be part of the gamble Obama knew he was taking when he opted for intervention: that it would all be over, and oil/gas prices stabilized at a price lower than now, before election season.  I wish him luck with that. I'm afraid he may be in for a rude awakening, because unless Qaddafi decides to step aside and drift into the sunset (which would definitely be the surprise of the century), the Libya game is far from over - and Qaddafi may have more cards to play than anyone has predicted.

One of Cole's commentators advises him - and I'm passing it along, with a thumbs-up - to read Glenn Greenwald's take at Salon .   GG takes on, among others, John Judis' pro-war piece on "How the Left Got Libya Wrong" - at The New Republic.  Much of his criticism of Judis can be found here:
my real question for Judis (and those who voice the same accusations against Libya intervention opponents) is this: do you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression, or to stop the still-horrendous suffering in the Sudan, or to prevent the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast? Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?

If not, doesn't that necessarily mean -- using this same reasoning -- that you're indifferent to the suffering of all of those people, willing to stand idly by while innocents are slaughtered, to leave in place brutal tyrants who terrorize their own population or those in neighboring countries? Or, in those instances where you oppose military intervention despite widespread suffering, do you grant yourself the prerogative of weighing other factors: such as the finitude of resources, doubt about whether U.S. military action will hurt rather than help the situation, cynicism about the true motives of the U.S. government in intervening, how intervention will affect other priorities, the civilian deaths that will inevitably occur at our hands, the precedents that such intervention will set for future crises, and the moral justification of invading foreign countries? For those places where you know there is widespread violence and suffering yet do not advocate for U.S. military action to stop it, is it fair to assume that you are simply indifferent to the suffering you refuse to act to prevent, or do you recognize there might be other reasons why you oppose the intervention?

Geenwald also seems to take a shot at Stephen Walt, whose recent piece at Foreign Policy aptly notes the very close parallels between Obama's liberal interventionist advisors and Boy George's neocons (something to which Cole, who seems to want to both have his cake and eat it, too, can't bring himself to 'fess up).  More importantly though, Walt plays out some of the possible repercussions, especially the what-ifs:
Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing.  Instead of being George Bush's mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became "Obama's War." And now he's taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.

When the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 last week and it was clear we were going to war, I credited the administration with letting Europe and the Arab League take the lead in the operation. My fear back then, however, was that the Europeans and Arab states would not be up to the job and that Uncle Sucker would end up holding the bag. But even there I gave them too much credit, insofar as U.S. forces have been extensively involved from the very start, and the Arab League has already gone wobbly on us. Can anyone really doubt that this affair will be perceived by people around the world as a United States-led operation, no matter what we say about it?

More importantly, despite Obama's declaration that he would not send ground troops into Libya -- a statement made to assuage an overcommitted military, reassure a skeptical public, or both -- what is he going to do if the air assault doesn't work? What if Qaddafi hangs tough, which would hardly be surprising given the dearth of attractive alternatives that he's facing? What if his supporters see this as another case of illegitimate Western interferences, and continue to back him? What if he moves forces back into the cities he controls, blends them in with the local population, and dares us to bomb civilians? Will the United States and its allies continue to pummel Libya until he says uncle? Or will Obama and Sarkozy and Cameron then decide that now it's time for special forces, or even ground troops?

And even if we are successful, what then? As in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, over forty years of Qaddafi's erratic and despotic rule have left Libya in very poor shape despite its oil wealth. Apart from some potentially fractious tribes, the country is almost completely lacking in effective national institutions. If Qaddafi goes we will own the place, and we will probably have to do something substantial to rebuild it lest it turn into an exporter of refugees, a breeding ground for criminals, or the sort of terrorist "safe haven" we're supposedly trying to prevent in Afghanistan.

But the real lesson is what it tells us about America's inability to resist the temptation to meddle with military power. Because the United States seems so much stronger than a country like Libya, well-intentioned liberal hawks can easily convince themselves that they can use the mailed fist at low cost and without onerous unintended consequences. When you have a big hammer the whole world looks like a nail; when you have thousand of cruise missiles and smart bombs and lots of B-2s and F-18s, the whole world looks like a target set. The United States doesn't get involved everywhere that despots crack down on rebels (as our limp reaction to the crackdowns in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrate), but lately we always seems to doing this sort of thing somewhere. Even a smart guy like Barack Obama couldn't keep himself from going abroad in search of a monster to destroy.

And even if this little adventure goes better than I expect, it's likely to come back to haunt us later. One reason that the Bush administration could stampede the country to war in Iraq was the apparent ease with which the United States had toppled the Taliban back in 2001. After a string of seeming successes dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. leaders and the American public had become convinced that the Pentagon had a magic formula for remaking whole countries without breaking a sweat. It took the debacle in Iraq and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to remind us of the limits of military power, and it seems to have taken Obama less than two years on the job to forget that lesson. We may get reminded again in Libya, but if we don't, the neocon/liberal alliance will be emboldened and we'll be more likely to stumble into a quagmire somewhere else.

And who's the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China's leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.

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