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July 20, 2011

The Libya Intervention: Why Retrospection Is Premature
Posted by Eric Martin

I welcome David's recent post, and the opportunity it provides to clarify my position, and to move this discussion forward. 

First, as something of an aside, I would like to set the record straight that I do not contend that our intervention in Libya has actually "harmed" our reputation in the region, but, rather, that it has failed to deliver the boon promised by proponents of US military involvement.

Now, for the more germane portion of David's critique. He asks opponents of intervention, "What would we say about Gadaffi's bloodbath in Benghazi, that it wasn't our business?" 

Since, as David would no doubt acknowledge, the international community makes just such a response with remarkable frequency when confronted with far worse episodes of government sanctioned/led violence (see, ie, North Korea, Rwanda, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Syria, etc.), such an answer would be neither unusual nor unprecedented - if still morally unsatisfying on some level.  Simply put, the vast majority of internal, state violence goes unaddressed by outside military intervention, and there are very good reasons for that neglect. 

When states make an accounting of their respective financial and military means, logistical capacity, their ability to successfully curb the violence and the durability of political will in support of intervention, most come to the correct conclusion that intervention is not feasible, even if the human suffering is real and regrettable. (I would submit that there are far less expensive, more efficient means available for the international community to aid beleagured populations (mosquito nets are cheap!) that don't involve the same high risk of blowback/killing of less favored local factions, but that's another story).

Next, he asks, "Should the international community...opt out of the intervention business?"  I would say that, at the very least, the "international community" should recognize that the "military intervention business" is one that is almost always massively costly, time/resource intensive, difficult to wind-down in a satisfactory manner and often leads to myriad negative consequences (both unforeseen and predicted), such as a conflict expansion/regional spillover. 

Also, the "international community" might want to assess whether it has the means to actually engage in a protracted conflict absent significant US logistical support, if not the US playing a lead role in the fight itself.  While many European leaders were vocal about their desire to commence military action in Libya, few, if any, had the means to do so without US assistance.

Thus, if not out of the business entirely, the international community should limit its interventions to the following circumstances, using a three-pronged test: (a) the most egregious, pressing humanitarian crises; (b) where military intervention has a high probability of succeeding both in the short term (averting the crisis) AND long term (leading to a durable, manageable political outcome); and (c) where the intervening parties are reasonably certain that they can maintain the political will, and provide the military and non-military resources necessary, to achieve (b).

David might rightly argue that (b) and (c) are implicitly folded into his "practicability of an effective response" prong, but by fleshing out what was an otherwise vague iteration, we can better assess the wisdom of the Libya intervention. 

While some may doubt that a potential siege of Benghazi would be an example of truly "egregious" use of force by a regime against its people (when engaged in the grisly business of comparing body counts), there is little doubt that loss of civilian life would have been high, and the situation tragic in many respects. Nevertheless, our intervention might have served to prolong the civil war/conflict, leading, in its own right, to tremendous loss of life and displacement of civilians.

Further, our intervention has altered the trajectory of events in Libya, which could lead to regime change, partition or some other end state. If so, the aftermath of regime change, partition, etc (and the impact that such a tumultuous period could/would have on civilians) must also be taken into account when gauging whether our intervention has proven to be a positive for Libya's citizens. 

As we saw in Iraq, the implementation of regime change is often the relatively easy, low-impact portion of a given intervention - with the post-regime change environment giving rise to exponentially more loss of life, displacement of local populations and other cause for human suffering.

Nevertheless, I am more than willing to concede that averting the siege of Benghazi was a worthwhile humanitarian goal (while acknowledging that the story doesn't end there).  Which gets to my central critique of the Libya intervention: it failed on both the (b) and (c) criteria using my calculus - and, for David's, it failed the "practicability of an effective response" test. 

Part of the problem is that the parties involved never clearly spelled out what, exactly, an "effective response" would entail. Was it simply stopping the march on Benghazi? If so, then David was correct that an effective response was practical. But, clearly, such a limited campaign would fail the central purpose given by the coalition: protecting Libya's civilians. With Gaddafi left in power, he would likely wait out the NATO powers and then, once they withdrew, exact his toll on the residents of Benghazi at a later date.

Thus, as NATO leaders have reiterated, regime change has been the desired end state.  That is the point at which the arguments of intervention proponents tend to fall apart. It simply wasn't reasonable to assume that NATO could and would be able to lead an effective regime change campaign (through air power alone?) and manage the aftermath which, again, will likely be far messier than the regime change itself (which, as of yet, still hasn't occurred).  

Already, under the relatively limited demands of an air campaign, some NATO countries are bowing to political pressure and planning to pull out of the coalition or limiting their contributions. Others are calling for negotiated settlement.  As of last month, France and the UK were running out of guided munitions to conduct airstrikes. Faced with budget cuts and austerity measures, the voting publics in these nations are losing patience with this endeavor.

The United States, on the other hand, is still pressed by its commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq and, increasingly, Somalia and Yemen which limits its ability/desire to get dragged in further in Libya (none of which were a secret to those assessing the United States' capacity/will for a prolonged campaign in Libya).

To reiterate a point, we haven't even gotten to the hard part yet.  Back in early March, when I first wrote on this Site of my apprehensions regarding intervention in Libya, I cautioned about a post-regime change environment that could devolve into factional fighting, prolonged civil conflict and insurgency - compounded by the fact that there are no strong civil institutions in place on which to graft a functioning, stable, representative government. 

While we recently recognized the TNC as Libya's rightful government, their appeal and constituency is limited, and largely regional in flavor (some fear our premature recognition could presage a partition of the country). The various rebel factions are not under a unified command, and infighting has already broken out amongst certain groups - not to mention incidents of revenge killings, torture and looting.  Further, the TNC has no relevant technocratic, bureaucratic or governing experience.

Despite these harbingers of future unrest, there has been a dearth of planning for the postwar transition period. Which organizations/nations will be overseeing that period and acting as peacekeepers? Under whose auspices? On whose dime? For how long? Backed by what political will? What if peacekeeping forces come under attack?

David closed his piece by noting, "we're nowhere near a set of unintended consequences that outweighs the carnage that would have resulted from a failure to resist Gaddafi."  My response would be, "We're nowhere near the end. Period."


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But if we don't meddle with other countries and attack them, some people might get the opinion that we're adhering to the UN Charter, the document that was supposed to bring peace to the world, and that wouldn't be right.

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I'm glad I found your blog post this morning, in this information release. I will send it to my friends and family say the same curious about the big issue.

Agreed. It really is premature - give it some time.

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Agreed. It really is premature - give it some time.

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