Reasonable, principled people can disagree about whether, in an ideal world, Western military intervention in Libya’s internal war would be a moral imperative. With Saddam Hussein dead and gone, there is arguably no more capricious and overbearing dictator in the Arab world than Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. The uprising of the Libyan people against him, beginning on February 17, was courageous beyond measure. It seems certain that, absent outside help, the subsequent armed insurrection would have been doomed to sputter amidst the colonel’s bloody reprisals. 

But the world is not an ideal one. It is not clear what principle differentiates Libya from other countries in conflagration as targets of Western foray. Antipathy for despots? The royal family of Bahrain has imported troops from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere to quash a peaceful groundswell against its arbitrary rule. Abhorrence of state violence? In Yemen, the embattled regime of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih killed some 45 unarmed protesters on the very day that French warplanes began patrolling a no-fly zone over Libya. Solidarity with the weak? The POLISARIO front has spent decades begging for enforcement of the UN resolutions demanding an end to Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Concern for civilians in the crossfire? Fighting in the Ivory Coast has forced 90,000 people to flee into neighboring Liberia, says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as the sitting president refuses to cede power to the internationally recognized victor in the December 2010 election. Without leaving Libya’s Arab and African neighborhood, one can find several places where arguments for forceful intercession could be made.

Given the multiple crises occurring on the planet at any given time, intervention is a political choice rather than a purely moral one. The hortatory sentences that start off, “We should,” ought in all honesty to begin, “We can.”

Libya in 2011 is an instance where the West can bring its unmatched firepower to bear without immediate damage to the international or regional order. No power need go it alone because the big three of Britain, France and the United States each, for its own reasons, reached the conclusion that Qaddafi’s time is up. Russia and China dislike UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the Western operation, but not enough to have vetoed it. They have no significant business interests in Libya; they do not mind watching Washington stretch itself, awaiting the eventual retraction; oil prices can withstand a long absence of Libya’s middling production from the market. Qaddafi is friendless among fellow tyrants in his vicinity, having mortally offended the Saudis and sponsored Darfuri insurgents against the criminally indicted leadership in Khartoum. The Arab League gave its blessing to intervention assured that the West had chosen Qaddafi as its bad guy to dispatch in the season of Arab revolts, meaning that Bahrain, Yemen and perhaps other states would be secure in escalated repression. And, as with Saddam, there is no credible case that Qaddafi is being unfairly demonized. The rule of the colonel and his surly brood is indefensible.

Yet it would be naïve to assert that the West chooses to intervene merely because it can. The West steps in because it can and because it wants to.

A puzzling question preoccupied commentators in the aftermath of the Obama administration’s apparent about-face sometime around March 16, the day before passage of UNSC 1973. Prior to that day, conventional wisdom held that the White House opposed military intercession, even in the shape of a no-fly zone, and despite the increasingly impassioned pleas of Britain, France and the Libyan National Council in rebel-controlled Benghazi. The objections to a no-fly zone, given voice before Congress by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, were pragmatic rather than principled. Among their number: Libya is a huge country, much larger in area than the twin swathes of Iraq the US and Britain policed in the 1990s; the necessary military assets, such as aircraft carriers, were not in theater; and Qaddafi’s helicopter gunships and tanks would be undeterred by an aerial exclusion zone, just as Saddam’s forces were in 1991, when they crushed the uprising in southern Iraq despite US mastery of the skies. Gates underlined for the legislators that imposing this measure would be, in essence, an act of war. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” he said on March 2. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.”

So why, in UNSC 1973, did the US push for and attain an authorization of force that not only includes a no-fly zone but also goes beyond it? Mainstream accounts, since they are molded by White House media outreach, have predictably emphasized the administration’s mounting worries about massacres as Qaddafi’s legions regained ground, as well as President Barack Obama’s desire to be on the right side of the struggle between peoples and autocrats in the Arab world. UNSC 1973 is portrayed as a victory for the humanitarian interventionist element of Obama’s foreign policy team, among them UN Ambassador Susan Rice and adviser Samantha Power, who are eager to expiate the sins of the Clinton administration in ignoring Rwanda. The resolution is depicted simultaneously as belated, but determined fulfillment of Obama’s pledge in his Cairo speech of June 2009 to revise the list of US priorities in the Middle East, bringing US interests into greater harmony with the aspirations of the region’s populace. For the Democratic Party flacks who must spin all news in a manner detrimental to Republicans, the Arab League’s agreement to a no-fly zone (though tempered days later) was proof that the Obama administration would not reprise its predecessor’s unsettling unilateral ways. “Real leadership recruits allies to share the burden of solving international problems,” smirked the National Security Network.

The more plausible explanation for the confused signals from the White House is that official circles were engaged in debate over whether Qaddafi would win. If, as it appeared in the second week of March, the Libyan strongman would rapidly quell the rebellion and reestablish his dominion across the country, there would be little point to Western intervention. In fact, the Obama administration might regret its verbal abandonment of Qaddafi in the preceding weeks, when officials may have hoped that the rebels would vanquish the dictator by force of arms. The debate was fierce. On March 10, the director of national intelligence, John Clapper, told Congress: “I just think from a standpoint of attrition, that over time — I mean, this is kind of a stalemate back and forth — but I think over the longer term that the [Qaddafi] regime will prevail.” Within hours, the White House had distanced itself from the spymaster’s remarks, which clashed with President Obama’s own insistence that “Qaddafi must go.” But the administration was not just trapped in its own rhetoric.

The balance of argument in the corridors of power was shifting to the judgment that neither Qaddafi nor the rebels would triumph: Rather, the most likely outcomes were a war of attrition or a partial regime reconquest bedeviled by a prolonged insurgency. Qaddafi’s loyalists, while far better equipped and drilled than the rebels, are not nearly numerous enough to occupy all of Libya’s coastal cities, let alone the Green Mountains where Islamist fighters have holed up before, in the mid-1990s. At the same time, the US was swinging to the view already held by France and other key European Union states: Such outcomes were intolerable, partly because oil flows might be interrupted, but more importantly because migrant flows might spike as Libya morphed into that Washington bugbear, the “failed state.”

In France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, immigration from Africa is a white-hot potato, not only because (as in the US) native-born Europeans resent competition from low-wage labor, but also because white Europeans fear their liberal laws and post-Christian culture will be overrun by unruly, yet doctrinaire Muslims. The EU has spent billions of euros to assuage this fear, both on tightened border security and on the “Euro-Med” family of socio-economic development programs, which are intended to lessen the poverty and despair propelling migrants northward. In the 2000s, the concern with stanching the North African migrant flow was augmented by worries about transmigration — the movement of black Africans across the Sahel and Sahara, through North Africa and then into Europe. Qaddafi’s Libya, along with Morocco, Algeria and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, became an increasingly watchful sentinel along the byways of transmigration, as the local press stoked anxiety about black Africans, unable to reach the promised land, settling in the Arab-Berber spaces en route.

A scantly governed Libya, wracked by revolt and starved of revenue by external sanctions, would be unable to block transmigration, even as it produced its own stream of refugees. The southern-tier EU states cannot abide a “Somalia,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton labeled the scenario of non-intervention, across the Mediterranean. Scarier still to the Western powers is the specter of Libya as Afghanistan or Iraq, or Bosnia or Chechnya, a ruined land drawing radical Islamists from far afield to assist the jihadis among the Libyan rebels in their fight. The alumnae of the Clinton administration in the Obama White House are certainly aware of the history of jihadis operating in failed states. In fact, from the 2004 presidential race onward, recognizing and prioritizing the threat posed by such locales has been the very ideological edifice on which right-thinking (and right-leaning) Democrats have hung their political hopes. The John Kerry campaign’s braying about “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the 2008 hopefuls’ promise to vacate Iraq and reinforce Afghanistan, the creation of the Center for a New American Security as a holding pen for would-be Pentagon officials — all of these gambits were predicated largely on the notion that Democrats should be in charge because they understand the challenges of the twenty-first century, chief among them transnational terrorist networks and failed states.

It is useful, indeed, to recall that no White House undertakes a major foreign policy venture without one eye on domestic politics. Another reason for the reluctance to impose a no-fly zone is that the Obama team knew it would be ineffectual, making the president vulnerable to the usual Republican hoots of derision about liberals playing soldier. But true to the Democrats’ post-Vietnam syndrome, the Obama administration eventually tried to solve this dilemma by pursuing a more aggressive course. UNSC 1973 charges the Western powers “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi.”

Double standards and ulterior motives are omnipresent in global affairs, and advocates of intervention often scoff at critics who write as if the mere presence of such impurities negates the value of a particular operation. But, equally, the fact of self-interested calculations does not mean that the calculations are canny or the interventions thought through to their logical conclusions.

It appeared from the initial days of Operation Odyssey Dawn authorized by UNSC 1973 that its goal was to establish something closer to a no-drive zone than a no-fly zone, something closer to regime change than an aerial umbrella. When Qaddafi offered a ceasefire (one he did not respect), Obama responded that the colonel’s forces were to withdraw from Ajdabiya, Misurata and al-Zawiya, three of the towns they had retaken from the rebels. French jets fired upon Qaddafi’s armored vehicles as US missiles and possibly other ordnance knocked out air defenses and what is claimed to be a command-and-control facility in the colonel’s Tripoli redoubt of Bab al-‘Aziziyya. But now the Obama team seems disposed to dispel any thought that Odyssey Dawn is a form of direct aid to the rebellion. “I would not dispute the fact that in some of our actions we are helping the rebels’ cause, but that is not the intent,” a “senior military official” told the Washington Post on March 22. Gen. Carter Ham, the US commander of Odyssey Dawn, acknowledged that, indeed, he has no orders to attack loyalist units embroiled in combat with the rebels.

This diffidence is doubtless partly aimed at reassuring Americans that Barack Obama is not George W. Bush and is serious about the clause of UNSC 1973 that rules out “a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” The Obama team figures that, for all the complaints of left-leaning Democrats and the last realist Republican holdouts in Congress, the Libya intervention will not extract a hefty political cost at home unless American lives are lost. But, meanwhile, the chattering classes are busy dissecting the Obama policy and finding it wanting. Will not the West be compelled to arm the rebels, if it will not insert its own troops or provide air support to the Libyans? Does not Qaddafi have the wherewithal to survive otherwise? Could not the result be precisely what Hillary Clinton feared — a Libya split into two or more pieces, governed by no one?

Pressure is building on the West to issue more robust rules of engagement. Because UNSC 1973 was written to “protect civilians,” such calls will grow louder if Qaddafi carries out his multiple threats of mayhem in last-ditch attempts to regain the balance of terror. Both Qaddafi’s past and his near total international isolation at present bespeak a dictator who will indeed fight dirty to the bitter end. In Libya, there may yet be grim reminders of the troubling experience of Kosovo in the 1990s, now varnished as a great success of humanitarian intervention. The impetus behind NATO’s Kosovo operation was the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebenica, which had taken place during an earlier phase of the Balkan wars and underneath a no-fly zone. NATO bombardment of the former Yugoslavia in 1999 was intended to forestall such atrocities, and is remembered for preventing them as well as helping to topple Slobodan Milosevic. But this vast civilian protection operation actually preceded the worst of the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, led by Serbian militias, and also engaged in by Kosovar Albanians.

History counsels that the West is better at waging war than at bringing peace to conflict-ridden countries, let alone political accommodation or prosperity. In Western Sahara and the Ivory Coast, to return to Libya’s neighborhood, the UN has long since dispatched blue-helmeted battalions to separate the combatants and monitor the armistice lines. But the world body lacks the political will to resolve either conflict. France and the US are too solicitous of their Moroccan ally to demand a referendum on Sahrawi independence, while no Western power feels a pressing interest in negotiating a political compromise in the Ivory Coast.

Oil-rich and strategically located, Libya is not Western Sahara or the Ivory Coast. The reiterations by Obama and his British and French counterparts that “Qaddafi must go” put Western prestige on the line. So, say events proceed as the West appears to hope and the rebels somehow manage to dislodge the colonel. Or say the US-British-French troika deals the death blow itself. What then? Who will emerge to reconstruct a strong, central state? Who will the West back from among the rebels’ disparate ranks? As the veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn contends, it is likely to be those “who speak the best English” and are “prepared to go before Congress to express fulsome gratitude for America’s actions.” One might add that they are apt to be the most willing to give favorable terms to Western oil firms for invigorated exploration and exploitation of the country’s hydrocarbon deposits. Whether scions of the royal family deposed by Qaddafi in 1969 or renegades from the colonel’s subsequent regime, these elements are sure to be heavier on opportunism than on popular legitimacy. This Libya would look nothing like the democratic state of liberal interventionist dreams, and quite a bit like post-Saddam Iraq.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "Of Principle and Peril," Middle East Report Online, March 23, 2011.

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