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August 23, 2011

Two Sure Strategy Wins in Libya: European Action, Avoiding the Pottery Barn
Posted by Jacob Stokes

Pottery BarnJust as Tripoli was flooded with rebels, so the web has been flooded with Libya commentary. The battle for who won Libya and/or how it could’ve been done better/not at all is raging.

Some are defending President Obama’s strategy for the war. See Nick Burns, Ben Smith and Anne Applebaum in praise of the strategy. Others are, rightly, urging caution. See Spencer Ackerman’s very smart point that the war isn’t even over yet, so we might want to hold up on the Grand Pronunciations. The problem with drawing conclusions too early is that, as we found in Iraq and Afghanistan, the troubles often begin only once the old regime is forced from power. Steve Walt puts it succinctly: “Whether our intervention was necessary or wise, however, depends on how the post-Qaddafi Libya evolves.”

Those two lines of argument aren’t completely in opposition though. There are at least two aspects of the strategy that will be positive for U.S. interests, even if Libya doesn’t turn into Switzerland in the next year.

First, Obama managed to get European allies—however begrudgingly and with much complaining about how taxing the operation was for them—to shoulder much of the burden after the initial stages of the war. Nick Burns applauds that fact, and says it should extend to the post-conflict situation as well:

President Obama’s conviction that the United States should push the European allies to play the leading role in NATO’s bombing campaign should now be extended to the next stage of the Libyan people’s revolution. While the United States will be a leading actor in mobilizing international political support for the new government, European and Arab countries should bear the lion’s share of the burden of extending economic assistance to Libyans emerging from four decades of a cynical dictatorship. “Leading from behind’’ is a disastrous phrase that was never illustrative of what Obama was trying to achieve. It should be forever banished from descriptions of his policy and overall global outlook. But he is right to insist that countries that have greater historical, social, and economic involvement in Libya - France, Italy, Spain, and the Arab states - should do more. These countries must lead in assembling an international economic support package for the new Libyan government.

If Obama had gone all-in, as many argued for, that would have signaled once again to Europe that the U.S. will bear the load of any military operation, regardless of how peripheral it is to American interests, and therefore Europe should continue to feel little need to develop a robust defense capacity. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave a speech chiding the Europeans for building down last June. With the Libya operation, Obama has demonstrated to our partners on the other side of the Atlantic that, in fact, the U.S. can involve itself in an operation assuming the whole burden. So if Europeans want to call for military operations, they had better be ready to do execute them without U.S. assistance.

Secondly, both post-war Iraq and Afghanistan have been characterized by backlash among the citizens of those countries against U.S. actions in toppling the regime and then not bringing change and stability around quick enough, in addition to just plain resistance to any sort of occupation, however benign.

That’s the other benefit of the administration’s strategy so far: We’ve avoided the “Pottery Barn” rule: You break it, you buy it. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor, we (America, NATO) may have been in the store, but we weren’t the ones doing the breaking. Recently retired Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg put it this way, “The biggest factor to date is the fact that we [Americans] have not been the problem. People aren't saying the Americans are trying to do regime change. Whether in Tunisia or Libya or Egypt, we are seen as supportive of others. It's an obvious contrast with the previous administration.... And the fact that tyrants are not able to rally their people against us shows the nuance and skill of this. It's working." (This of course assumes we don’t offer ground troops to help stabilize, which is extremely unlikely.)

Whatever happens, these two aspects of the strategy align American actions and involvement with our interests in Libya and the broader Arab Spring.

Photo: Flickr


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The US helps convert a secular state to an Islamic state -- again.

Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage
Part One
General Provisions
Article (1)

Libya is an independent Democratic State wherein the people are the source of authorities. The city of Tripoli shall be the capital of the State. Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia). . .

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