Monday, March 14, 2011

Libya: To Intervene or Not to Intervene?

I've been mulling this over in my head for the last week, most of my initial doubts based on the Iraq war have been dispelled.  The key change for me is that the Arab League has endorsed a no fly zone and that reports on the rebels in Libya have started calling for support, something they hadn't done initially. 

So I now tentatively feel that the right thing to do is to intervene, but with some caveats.  The biggest caveat is that before we need to go in we need to accept the limits of our influence.  We can't remake Libyan politics and toppling Qaddafi or putting another specific group in power isn't our goal.

What we should do is try to make this a fair fight, and be upfront about it.  Liberating Libya is up to the Libyans, our role is just to make it a fair fight.  Right now, Qaddafi has control of the air force, tanks, and other advantages that go with being able to buy arms for decades.  What we can do is eliminate this advantage and make this a straight up ground war.

But that should be the limits of our influence, and it should be publicly stated.  Toppling Qaddafi is something that will be done by forces on the ground and how things turn out will be their victory, not ours. 

I believe taking this position will serve the dual purpose of adding legitimacy to any new regime and reducing anti-western radicalism that has become so pervasive due to our Middle Eastern policies.  Taking credit for toppling the regime wouldn't do this it would just play into the narrative of western imperialism.

There are two risks to this strategy, even if it works.  The first is that Qaddafi will stay in power and be even more disruptive than in the past.  This I'm not to worried about.  He was a pest before and didn't topple the international system, we can live with him being a pest again.

The second risk is that the Libyan rebels aren't organized so we don't know what we'll be dealing with if they succeed.  This is a huge risk, and what I do know (which isn't much) about Libyan politics is that they're still divided by tribe and other ascriptive identities that make any form of democracy more difficult and less stable.  This can't be ignored.  However, if they do win, if not now say in another revolt in a few decades, and we didn't intervene this will be a major new source of resentment in a region of the world we're already not very popular.  Libya has also already proven to be a large source of insurgents in Iraq.  Things are already bad there from our perspective, while they can get worse I think this is balanced by how much better things can get.  I believe this concern, while real, has slightly greater upsides than downsides so ultimately argues in favor of intervention, if only by a hair.

Aside from these risks, my main concern is that if we do intervene the hawks will win out and drag us further into this than we should go.  This is my biggest concern.  I think limited intervention has a low enough risk and a high enough pay off to be worth it.  What we have to recognize is that there's a risk, if we lose this hand we have to cut our losses and not get drawn further in.  If we let ourselves get drawn into making this our fight rather than simply playing a supporting role the balance changes and intervention is far too expensive.  This worries me since hawkishness is always popular so there's a real chance that if we do intervene at all, we won't be able to stop the momentum from dragging us in.

On the whole, while I have doubts, I think we should intervene provided we can make a number of up front caveats to help us from getting drawn in further and to communicate to the Libyans, and the Arab world in general, that we still see this as their fight, we're only lending a small helping hand.  Making this distinction is what I see as the critical element however, I'm opposed to any intervention where we try to take any credit for toppling Qaddafi, this isn't our role, it's not in our power, and it would be a massive strategic and diplomatic mistake to do so.

I'd also like a UN resolution supporting intervention, it seems time to call an emergency assembly.  If the other Arab nations will push for it, it seems like it has a real chance of happening.  China and Russia may grumble, but neither likely wants to alienate the rest of the Middle East so I think they'd abstain if it came to a vote.  It's worth the gamble.

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