Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Iraq-Libya Parallels

Except for Robert Fisk, the Independent's Patrick Cockburn is English-language journalism's most experienced hand in the Middle East, with especially long experience in Iraq (and books to testify to it).  His piece in today's Independent notes ominous parallels between Iraq after the 1991 "Desert Storm" war and the situation that seems to be taking hold now in Libya (even if these two interventions by the West are of markedly different scale).  In 1991 Saddam was defeated, but hung on for another 12 years even as the Iraqi people were reduced to misery under the extremely harsh UN sanctions regime (a misery that, as Joy Gordon has documented, the US went to extraordinary lengths to ensure would be unrelenting, at horrible cost to Iraqis, especially children).

Qaddafi, on the other hand, has weathered an initial onslaught by both the rebels and their NATO patrons, and the situation currently is at a stalemate.  Cockburn's view seems to be that it's only a matter of time before the West grabs the reins:

The opposition leaders in Benghazi hope that time is on their side and that the increasingly isolated regime will crumble from within as it faces irresistible pressure from abroad. Possibly they are right. But Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein thought much the same 20 years ago. And conflicts before and after his fall inspired hatreds that wrecked their country beyond repair.

When this Libyan war started I was struck by the parallels with foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, at close range, I find the similarities even more ominous. We have joined somebody else's civil war, and it is a war in which Britain, France and the US must inevitably play a leading role. Without our support, the local partner would be defeated within 24 hours. [my emphasis]

But 2011 is not 2003, when the US and Britain jumped back into Iraq with both feet in order to eliminate Saddam.  The British economy is a shambles, and the Brits are downsizing across the board.  The US military is overstretched, with more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan (where their presence is not bringing anything close to an ending that can be termed "victorious," and is hemorrhaging money from the American treasury), expensive missiles from drones still being rained down in Pakistan, and expensive  bases across the globe.  (And with all that, an extension of the US military presence in Iraq is still being discussed seriously.)

Virtually no serious analyst is calling for the kind of massive injection of boots on the ground in Libya that ousted Saddam in Iraq.  Yet, it's becoming increasingly obvious that, short of carpet-bombing Tripoli or sending in CIA or Special Ops assassins to eliminate Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator may not be "oustable" unless ground forces are inserted.  That would entail, however, an expenditure of treasure and personnel that the American and British publics might find completely unacceptable.  Yet, to simply back off and let things play out would be to invite numerous wild cards into an already chaotic game: among them, jihadists, and mercenaries of various stripes, as well as exacerbated flows of refugees who might destabilize already volatile situations in Egypt and Tunisia and whose arrivals are already creating rifts among EU countries.

At some point, somebody has to make a move.  Whose turn is it?

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