Sunday, August 28, 2011

Should the US Stay Involved in Libya?

Robert Kagan's essay in the WaPo (= an abbreviated version of longer piece in the neocon trumpet The Weekly Standard) verges on the insidious: offering grudging yet relatively fulsome praise for Obama's leadership in what Kagan seems to assume is a "win" for the West in Libya, but also challenging him not to "walk away" from Libya.

The administration did deserve criticism. The Libyan intervention will join the Kosovo campaign under the historical heading “Winning Ugly.” The president was slow to act. The arbitrary decision to stop flying the A-10s and AC-130s after only a few days may have prolonged the war by months, with thousands of needless Libyan deaths. Clearly the president and his advisers were spooked by public opinion, worried about committing the nation to yet another Middle East intervention and, in the midst of an economic crisis, looking to fight the war as cheaply as possible. Administration spinners who are now telling a gullible press corps what a brilliantly conceived operation this was from start to finish know what nonsense that is.

But what’s new? American interventions, large and small, are never pretty. American presidents are almost always slow to see the need for action; they worry about their political backsides and start looking for the exits as soon as they decide to act. Republican critics, especially those who served in the Reagan and Bush years, should look in the mirror. They might recall the handling of the intervention in Lebanon in 1982, the deliberate inaction in the early days of the Balkan slaughter in 1992, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States almost never does these things well. But sometimes it succeeds nevertheless. This is one of those times.

Or at least one hopes. Plenty can still go wrong in a country governed for 40 years by a mad despot. The Obama administration is where the Bush administration was in November 2001 in Afghanistan and in April 2003 in Iraq. The dictator has fallen, but dangers abound.

Those experiences teach that failure to manage the transition can rapidly turn success into disaster. Presumably the president and his advisers know this. Yet the temptation to pocket the president’s “win” and run away from Libya as fast as possible will be great. Obama needs to resist it.

Implicit in Kagan's admissions (we don't do intervention well; Obama could have led better, etc.) is a yeah-but that, be all of that as it may, the US-is-the-indispensable-nation.  I can't argue with Kagan's advice that the US not "walk away" from Libya - but his piece makes no reference to the strong likelihood that Libya's situation may well deteriorate before it gets better.  There will be lots of score-settling to come.  Meanwhile, Libya's infrastructure of internal governance is almost non-existent, thanks to the style of rule that Qaddafi adopted.

What if Libya starts to swirl the drain?  What if "al-Qaeda" or salafist groups begin to assert themselves in towns or countryside?  What if members of Qaddafi's tribe retaliate in vengeance?  What if (as Andrew Gilligan noted in The Telegraph) Libya's Arabs resent and oppose the new influence of the western Berbers who played such a prominent role in the military victories against Qaddafi's forces?  Is Kagan contending that Obama needs to put the US military on stand-by alert, to intervene if the situation sours?  Is Obama now supposed to provide some sort of guarantee for the Libyan revolution?

Lurking here is a reassertion of the neocon credo: the US has the prerogative - indeed, the obligation - to wield its military in the cause of re-shaping the Middle East to fit a model of democracy that suits US values and interests.

I hope Obama won't be signing on. 

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