Another View on Libya

We’ve gotten a lot of response, positive and negative, to my comments last night on our intervention in Libya. Here’s an email from a reader and American foreign policy professional in the region, taking a different view (I’ve slightly redacted the note to remove references to the reader’s identity) …

I have to disagree with your reasoning on Libya.

Perhaps you would have been correct a couple of months ago in saying that what happened in Libya was not of particular national or humanitarian interest to the United States. Today, though, you are wrong.

The Arab world is in a state of remarkable transformation. But you would be wrong to look at this transformation in the context of individual countries and individual revolutions. Because Arabs certainly do not see it that way. Rather, a feeling of solidarity between and among the citizens of the Arab world is what dominates: this is a regional, not national, transformation, and you can see this expressed all over the place.

Without a doubt, the outcome of this transformation is of critical importance to us. This includes answers to questions such as: to which countries will this “Arab spring” spread? What sorts of governments will take the place of the autocrats? How will they view the United States? How will their people view the United States?

I understand your wariness about the reception among Arabs towards the prospect of another U.S. intervention in a Muslim country. Understand it, and would share it under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. I watch Arabic satellite news, read the newspapers, and more importantly interact with people on the street. And I can tell you that the feeling towards this intervention is overwhelmingly one of relief and hope.

Arabs see that for the first time since these protests began, we are really supporting the movement in a tangible way. This is important, because there is a huge amount of anger towards the United States for our realpolitik-driven support of these autocrats in the past. By responding favorably to the please from the rebels for our intervention, we have, hopefully, made some progress towards erasing some of that resentment. Which, of course, serves our interests.

But what frustrates me about yours and others’ “realpolitik” critiques of the national interests of intervening is that people seldom stop to consider the alternative. What if we had stood by and done nothing, ignoring in effect the pleas of the Libyan people and the Arab League? As you said Qadhafi probably would have prevailed. And likely the payback would have been terrible for the people of Benghazi and elsewhere. His resentment towards the West for the sanctions and statements of support would have also been enormous, turning him into even more of an enemy than he was before.

Also likely is that the Arab spring would have stalled. And that would have been unfortunate, for many reasons.

But more imporantly, the people of the entire Arab world would have felt betrayed. Look, they would have said, for all its talk about democracy and human rights the U.S. ignored the pleas of the Libyan people for support. Seriously, people on the street were already using those lines with me last week. The damage to our standing with the Arab people would have been enormous and long-lasting.

And that, without a doubt, would have been terrible for our “interests.”

I also take issue with your assessment of the chances that this intervention will succeed, but I have already written too much so I am afraid those comments will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that if you do end up with egg on your face, as I expect and fully hope that you will, you will own up to it! 🙂

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for your patience and consideration.

Late Update: After publishing the initial email, the reader asked me to publish this version which is, as it were, revised for publication. Having already published a redacted version of the original note, which has already been read by several thousand people, I didn’t want to pull it from the site. But I’m including this revised version here in the interests of completeness and giving all dimensions of this reader’s views …

I have to disagree with your reasoning on Libya. For full disclosure, I am a U.S. government official serving in a Middle Eastern country, but I am writing to express my personal views only.

The Arab world is in a state of remarkable transformation. But you would be wrong to look at these as individual transformations, individual revolutions, within individual nation-states. The Arabs certainly don’t see it that way. Rather, Libya today occupies a position at the heart of what has been a regional phenomenon, an Arab Spring if you like, that has been defined by a remarkable feeling of solidarity across the Arab world.

Without a doubt, the outcome of this Arab Spring is of critical importance to the United States. Key questions remain unanswered, questions such as: where will the protests spread? How will autocrats respond? What sorts of governments will take their place? And how will they and their people view us?

By responding favorably to the rebels, and indeed the Arab League’s pleas for military intervention, we are helping to speed Qadhafi’s departure. It isn’t a sure bet, but it’s certainly a far better one than doing nothing. Another successful dictator toppled can encourage the democracy movement to continue, which I believe is in the interests of the region and the world, not to mention our own.

Furthermore, by intervening on the side of the rebels in Benghazi, we are in effect tangibly allying ourselves with the cause of the protesters for the first time since these protests started. And this, too, is in our interests, as there is currently a great deal of anger towards the United States for our past realpolitik-driven friendships with certain of these autocrats. Supporting the transformation in Libya can go a long way towards erasing some of that resentment.

I understand your wariness about the reception among Arabs towards the prospect of another U.S. intervention in a Muslim country. Understand it, and would share it under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances. I watch Arabic satellite news, read the newspapers, and more importantly interact with people on the street. And I can tell you that the feeling towards this intervention is one of relief and hope.

So, in sum, while you may have been correct two months ago in asserting that Libya is of questionable importance from a national security or humanitarian perspective, today this is no longer accurate.

But what frustrates me most about yours and others’ “realpolitik”-driven critiques of this intervention is that critics seldom stop to consider the alternative. What if we had ignored the rebels’ pleas for our assistance? What if we had stood by and done nothing? As you say Qadhafi probably would have prevailed, and the payback likely would have been terrible, for the people in Benghazi and elsewhere. Democracy would have failed in Libya, and stalled elsewhere.

All of which would have been covered exhaustively on Al Jazeera, of course. Under the overall narrative that the United States, after launching a $1.5 trillion invasion of Iraq, ignored the suffering of the people of Libya despite the region’s urgent requests for assistance. That we let the democracy movement die in Libya, that we betrayed the Arab people and showed that we do not really care about democracy after all, only about our narrow economic interests. Seriously, people on the street were already using these lines with me last week, even before the going got really bad for the rebels.

The damage to our standing in the region would have been enormous and long-lasting, of that I have no doubt. And this most certainly would not have been in our interests.

Today in Libya and elsewhere in the region we are watching history unfold. It is easy in such moments to lose track of the big picture, to lose perspective. But at the end of the day we must realize that we are faced with a decision that will define our relations with these countries and their people for a long time to come: whether to take the risk and support in a tangible way their democratic aspirations, or stand aside and do nothing in fear of all the things that could go wrong. I for one am glad we chose the former.