Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Makes Libya Different?

I see a lot of commentary that seems to be taking the line that action in Libya can easily lead to us becoming over committed and feeling obligated to get involved elsewhere.  While it is never possible to be sure with military action, there's always a party advocating for ever more involvement, there are several factors that I think makes Libya different from other cases.

  1. The Arab League endorsed intervention.  A major international innovation over the past century has been the development of a number of formal international bodies.  This has been particularly remarkable since WWII and is a major feature of the American international system.  So far, while these bodies have not always proven effective, they have proven to be far more effective at promoting peace than anything else yet tried in history.  As our relative power declines it is the strength and persistence of these bodies that has the most promise for creating a stable international system that we can continue to prosper in.  Raw power is something we won't possess enough of.  Enlarging and emphasizing the role of these organizations is in my opinion the number one strategic challenge on the US in the coming decades so that the world remains favorable to us even when we are one of several powers.
  2. Libyan government defections (NY Times).  So far, none of the other revolts in the Mid-East has involved substantial defections of high ranking officials.  The defections mean there are substantial rifts in the Libyan government and give strong hints of how shallow his power is.  If he can't even keep the loyalty of officials dependent on the center his prospects for controlling the rest of the country effectively are dim.  He may be able to maintain some authority through brute power, but this is fragile and can't be maintained for long.  This hints very strongly that even if Qaddafi were to win stability would not be restored.
  3. Large military defections, including pilots (NY Times).  Air forces are one of the most expensive, and by extension should have been one of the most loyal, military institutions a state has.  While numbers have been small, two fighters (does anyone know what happened to these two planes after landing in Europe?) and another voluntarily downed, this hints strongly that Qaddafi's grip on the military isn't the tight.  As the story linked to says it seems he has some intensely loyal brigades and that the bulk of the army is weak and poorly trained, but his reliance on mercenaries hints that he may not be all that certain of even these troops.  His grip on power seems linked to his series of successes, if western help can break this his forces may not keep stable enough for prolonged action.  Though forcing him from his capital will be problematic.
  4. Refugees.  While there has been violent suppression of riots elsewhere this has not led to a mass exodus of people.  This hints strongly at a different scale of violence then has been observed elsewhere.

 So far, none of these factors have been present elsewhere.  I view all of these as very important factors in intervention.  Despite a lot of idealistic noise about it all being about human rights of individuals that is made an essential feature of any successful intervention is the present of native troops on the ground and organized forces for intervening powers to be able to coordinate with.  Without active involvement from domestic forces it is very difficult to intervene effectively with a stable outcome (think the KLA in Kosovo or the Kurds in northern Iraq vs. the disorganized forces in the rest of Iraq which couldn't engage in pitched battles).  Other cases in the Mid-East, such as Bahrain, still possess stable governments and haven't had large military defections (there seems to be an element of sectarianism in Bahrain as well, which is a mess it's never advisable to step in). 

So far, there is no real indication that any state in the Mid-East is about to disintegrate the way that Libya did.  The closest right now is Yemen, but that place has been a royal mess for years, there's no particular reason to think that the violence there has much to do with the anti-authoritarian sentiments sweeping the Mid-East rather than being the tribal politics of years past.  While I have doubts about Libya becoming a bastion of democracy in the future, it too is riven by tribal divisions which are a significant complicating factor for democracy and one that usually needs to weaken significantly for democracy to take hold (this isn't western bias, I describe medieval European personality driven loyalties the same way, these disappeared due to centuries of state pressure rather than as a spontaneous cultural change and we shouldn't expect these loyalties to disappear overnight in non-western societies either just because they watch our movies), it has come far further down this path than Yemen has so has a better chance of successfully transitioning.  In any case however, even if Yemen doesn't stabilize the overall strategic situation is that it is unlikely to remain stable under Qaddafi either given the weaknesses and divisions already displayed in his government.  In this case, our choice is whether the focus will be on us as enablers of oppression in the Arab world (which is currently the main narrative in those countries, even if we like to ignore all the evidence of this that the Arab world is so aware of and get frustrated they don't pay attention to all the contrary evidence we keep pointing out, we do the same about their politics) or if we will start a difficult to refute counter-narrative which will take the focus off us and put it back on domestic reform in those countries.

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