In Libya, No Ordinary Intervention
22nd March 2011
Within 48 hours of the launch of NATO military action against the Qaddafi regime, the intervention is beset by fundamental questions about the reality of regional support and its strategic objective. The Arab League has walked back from its initial calls for a no-flight zone, and is now distancing itself from the widespread targeting of Libyan installations. On Sunday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to identify a specific endgame for military action.
At stake is far more than a successful armed action against a militarily feeble opponent. Having made the fateful and perilous choice to go to war with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the West now owes a debt to the wider — and strategically far more consequential — Arab reform movement that only an end to his regime can honor.
There is much to admire in the decision by NATO countries to intervene in the Libyan regime’s attempt to crush a popular uprising with brute force: a willingness to assist a long-repressed civilian population in its hour of existential need; a commitment, however belated, to back United Nations rhetoric of “Never Again” and the “Responsibility to Protect” with armed action; a recognition that allowing Colonel Qaddafi to reassert authority through brute force would embolden other autocrats to choose repression over reform.
Even as the precedents of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo are now being revisited for lessons both of action and inaction, it is essential that we recognize that this is no ordinary intervention.
First, if there is one thing students of intervention can agree on it is that resolutions are never enough and that action that is not decisive can be worse than no action at all. Rarely has a military campaign been undertaken with as much uncertainty about its aims, and as many declared caveats about what it would not be about (regime change) and what it would not involve (foreign occupation). Whatever the shock and awe imposed by the power of NATO’s modern armaments, surely Colonel Qaddafi can detect strategic irresolution as well as anyone.
Second, the broader context of the most important Arab reform movement in 50 years requires a far starker assessment of the price of failure. An essential — if still underestimated — aspect of the Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia was the nationalist yearning for dignity and self-respect brutally denied the men and women of those societies by decades of politically infantilizing autocratic rule. Egyptians as Egyptians — not as Arabs or Muslims or Copts — rose in defense of their nation’s past and future.
The task of remaking their countries into modern, productive, representative societies with equal rights for men and women will be hard enough for the next Arab generation of leaders. Another prolonged and bloody conflict with the West will provide the perfect excuse for Arab autocrats to change the subject — away from their own illegitimacy and corrupt rule and toward a universally felt nationalist sentiment as powerful as that of freedom.
None of this need necessarily undermine the moral and strategic validity of the intervention. But just as it demonstrates the high stakes of the war on the Qaddafi regime, it reveals — however inconveniently — the only outcome that secures both objectives of Libyan freedom and continued Arab reform without doubt: a swift end to Colonel Qaddafi’s regime.
There were plentiful reasons to think that, faced with the prospect of starting another war in the Arab world, discretion would have been the better part of valor. But having opted for intervention at a time of unprecedented ferment and change among the Arabs, London and Washington have assumed responsibility for a cause far greater than Benghazi or Misrata.
And in an irony that George W. Bush and Tony Blair would appreciate, unseating Colonel Qaddafi without the introduction of Western ground troops is likely to require a great deal more luck than wars otherwise offer. The ghost of Iraq is not that easily dispensed with.