Just a Bad, Bad Idea

March 20, 2011 2:11 p.m.

At the end of last week I couldn’t help tweeting that everything I was seeing in Libya was bringing out my inner foreign policy Realist. And everything I’ve seen this weekend has confirmed me in that view. Indeed, there are so many reasons this strikes me as a bad idea I really hardly know where to start. So let me focus on the three biggest problems I see.First, insurrections like these by poorly organized rebel forces depend hugely on momentum and the perceived weakness of the leader. Not long ago Qaddafi’s authority appeared to be crumbling. Numerous members of the regime were defecting to the inchoate rebel forces. It seemed like only a matter of days. Perhaps hours. The turning point came when Qaddafi stabilized the front moving into western Libya. Once that happened, once he’d halted the momentum toward collapse, it was very bad news for the rebels because as we’ve seen Qaddafi had all the heavy weapons and command and control on his side. By this weekend, without massive outside intervention, it’s pretty clear Qaddafi had already won.

A week ago a relatively limited intervention probably could have sealed the rebels’ victory, preventing a reeling Qaddafi from fully mobilizing his heavy armaments. But where do we expect to get from this now? It’s not clear to me how the best case scenario can be anything more than our maintaining a safe haven in Benghazi for the people who were about to be crushed because they’d participated in a failed rebellion. So Qaddafi reclaims his rule over all of Libya except this one city which has no government or apparent hope of anything better than permanent limbo. Where do we go with that?

We’re calling a time out on a really ugly situation the fundamental dynamics of which we aren’t in any position to change. That sounds like a mess.

Maybe we do this and then that rejuvenates the opposition and Qaddafi is gone in a week. If that happens, great. Egg on my face. But I doubt it.

Second, it’s difficult for me to distinguish this from an armed insurrection against a corrupt autocrat that looked to be winning and then lost. That sort of thing happens a lot. Only in very specific circumstances is there any logic for us to intervene in a situation like that. I’ve heard people saying well, we took too long to stop the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and we didn’t lift a finger to stop the genocide in Rwanda, so let’s not make the same mistake this time. But these seem like preposterous comparisons. This is ugly and it’s brutal but a lot of people getting killed in a failed rebellion isn’t genocide. It’s not. And unlike situations where violence can destabilize the larger region, in this case our presence seems more likely to destabilize the larger region.

Qaddafi is a clownish nut, though clearly a very savvy one. He’s awful for his country. But we seem to be being ginned up into this by the usual suspects in the US — I’m waiting for John McCain to announce that we’re all Benghazians now. That and a French President who I have to imagine is being motivated by domestic politics we only dimly understand, despite lacking a military capable of projecting force the several hundred miles from France to the battle zone.

Lots of countries have jet fighters and navies and missiles. But the kind of modern warfare we tend to take for granted in the US these days requires getting all those different things operating together, with all the right hardware in all the right places all at the same time, keeping everything in communication over vast distances. One key to understanding the contemporary world system is that the US is really the only military able to do that. With the semi-exception of the UK, even the modern NATO militaries operate more like auxiliaries to the US legions.

Finally, the talk of exit strategies is always a bit off the mark in these situations. Sometimes the stakes are high enough that the exit strategy doesn’t have to be clear. The better question is this: can you maintain the initiative in getting to your goal. In this case, we go in and then we’re stuck. Again, maybe the introduction of outside force to buoy the rebels will shake things up and turn the momentum against Qaddafi. Things are so fluid in the Mideast today that I do not discount that possibility. Maybe there’s more our people know that makes them think that’s likely. But from the outside, I don’t see it. Or more specifically, it’s not clear what steps we can take to make it more likely.

It looks more like once we’ve closed down Qaddafi’s air forces we’ve basically taken custody of what is already a failed rebellion. We’ve accepted responsibility for protecting them. Once we recognize that, the logic of the situation will lead us to arming our new charges, helping them get out of the jam they’re in.

So let’s review: No clear national or even humanitarian interest for military intervention. Intervening well past the point where our intervention can have a decisive effect. And finally, intervening under circumstances in which the reviled autocrat seems to hold the strategic initiative against us. This all strikes me as a very bad footing to go in on.

And this doesn’t even get us to this being the third concurrent war in a Muslim nation and the second in an Arab one. Or the fact that the controversial baggage from those two wars we carry into this one, taking ownership of it, introducing a layer of ‘The West versus lands of Islam’ drama to this basically domestic situation and giving Qaddafi himself or perhaps one of his sons the ability to actually start mobilization some public or international opinion against us.

I can imagine many of the criticisms of the points I’ve made. And listening to them I think I’d find myself agreeing in general with a lot of it. But it strikes me as a mess, poorly conceived, ginned up by folks with their own weird agendas, carried out at a point well past the point that it was going to accomplish anything. Just all really bad.

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