Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Libya Crapshoot Begins

Paul Woodward at War in Context  furnishes the numbers:
10 in favour, zero against, five abstentions.

Voting for the resolution:
Permanent members: United States, Britain, France
Non-permanent members:: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Gabon, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal, South Africa

Permanent members: Russia, China
Non-permanent members: Germany, Brazil, India

The Resolution authorizes member states “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamhariya, including Benghazi, while excluding an occupation force.”

As Simon Tisdall writes for The Guardian (h/t to Paul again),
With a boldness that the world had begun to believe he lacked, Barack Obama has gone for broke. The US wants Muammar Gaddafi's head. It will not rest until he is deposed and there is regime change in Libya. And it will fight to get it.
The debate had been mostly about whether to impose a no-fly zone in order to deter Qaddafi and perhaps rescue the rebels whom his forces were pressing in Benghazi.  But as it was apparent that it was likely too late for a no-fly zone to have the desired effect, the decision is to up the ante. A no-fly zone is in itself an act of war. How much more so, the airstrikes that, some are saying, may come within hours.

Obama will not be going it alone.  As Leon Hadar argued for so forcefully in the CSM, the Europeans (who share with Mr. Qaddafi the same Mediterranean neighborhood) have at least as much at stake in the outcome of Libya's civil war.  Tisdall's piece makes it plain that the British and French have already engaged in contingency planning for their own military involvement; and in a statement that must be especially galling not just to Qaddafi, but to many Libyans (including perhaps the rebels), Italy, who under Mussolini brutally colonized Libya, has offered the use of its airbases.  How soon the European air forces will be ready (indeed, if they are truly ready at all) remains to be seen.  Will Qaddafi's forces stick with him?  Will his air defenses take some toll on British and French bombers?  Will they need to call for help from an already overburdened US?

And if Qaddafi decides to stand and fight, what if he is able even partially to follow through on what he now threatens his foreign enemies with?  As the NYT reports, Libya has asserted:
 “Any foreign military act against Libya will expose all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea to danger and civilian and military facilities will become targets of Libya’s counterattack. . . .  The Mediterranean basin will face danger not just in the short term, but also in the long term.
Tisdall lays out many more of the what-ifs.  Some of them are truly daunting.
The longer term impact of the intervention is immeasurable – but disaster is certainly one possible outcome. Like the first Gulf war, the involvement and support of Arab countries means the Libyan war will not be defined, except by hardline jihadis and al-Qaida, as another western assault on Muslim lands. But if the fighting is prolonged, if Gaddafi does not quit and run, if his more able sons take up his cause, if the intervention makes things worse not better for ordinary people (as in Iraq), if there is no clear-cut win but ongoing low level conflict and resistance (as in Afghanistan), then Arab opinion will turn against the westerners once more. The post-9/11 nightmare of the Pentagon's long war without end will reproduce on the shores of the Mediterranean.
 And let's not forget that any war brings a multitude of unpredictable contingencies - including collateral damage from the "precision weapons" and "surgical strikes" that the US has used so profligately in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, at the cost of hundreds of innocent lives taken and hearts and minds lost.  And what if the struggle does devolve into an ongoing civil conflict?  What if Qaddafi (who likely is intent on, more than anything, surviving at this point) reaches out to enlist jihadists and "al-Qaeda" in the struggle against the Western neo-Crusaders and Zionists?  Libyan jihadists flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to take on the godless Communists - with our help.  And it's not as if Qaddafi won't have rhetorical ammunition with which to lure them.  America's perpetual campaign to ensure its influence in the Middle East is obvious to one and all throughout the region; and American boots are still on the ground in Iraq.  British boots were on the ground in Libya only 70 years ago during World War II. As for France: Mr. Sarkozy has hardly proven himself a friend of France's Muslims, much less those outre mer.

One can only hope that Qaddafi will (improbably) give up or flee, or can be "disappeared"; that his eldest son, Seif al-Islam, would then stand down (again, improbable); and that the leaders who might emerge from among the rebels can then produce a new government that can re-unify the country.  As was argued by Ali Abdullatif Ahmida in the NYT recently,
About 80 percent of Libyans now live in urban areas, towns and cities. Libya today has a modern economy and a high literacy rate. The leaders of the uprising include lawyers, judges, journalists, writers, scholars, women’s rights activists, former army officers and diplomats — a sizable urban elite that is battered and restive.
Promising raw material.  But let's also not forget that the country of Libya is hardly a "nation" - but comprises three separate, vast regions (most prominently Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east) that were forced into unification under a very reluctant king in 1951, have labored under tribal divisiveness for centuries, and have no tradition of strong, enduring civil institutions, courtesy largely of Mr. Qaddafi's "visionary" politics.

So . . . even if this Euro-American gamble pays off and Qaddafi is eliminated quickly and with a minimum of further bloodshed and damage to infrastructure, what then?  Do Obama, Sarkozy, and Cameron simply dust off their hands, intone "our work is done here," and back away?

I've too often fallen back on the Petraeus query, but I'll nonetheless pose it again, and will hope that Mr. Obama has posed it to himself, and his advisors: Tell me how this ends.

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