Saturday, March 19, 2011

Odyssey Dawn

Today an international coalition began attacking military forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar al-Qadhafi, with the official aim of protecting civilians in rebel-held areas of the country, especially the major city of Benghazi. The Obama administration is working hard to ensure that this is not perceived as an American operation. I believe this scenario is correct:
"Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.

"The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was 'indispensable,' Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader's load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding).

"In Libya, the Obama administration followed the old Bush-Clinton playbook, but stuck with it much longer. For weeks, nothing much happened. Hawks bemoaned the fecklessness. Doves praised the 'strategic reticence.' And Qaddafi steadily slaughtered the rebels.

"Finally, the French and British couldn't take it anymore and, just before the rebels couldn't take it anymore, forced through the Chapter VII UNSCR that made military intervention imminent."

This fits with Obama's usual modus operandi, which centers around patience and sticking to a strategy past the point where everyone else is a nervous wreck clamoring for action, as well as his public statements and what appears to be actually unfolding in the conflict zone. The United States has been involved in missile warfare to degrade Qadhafi's air defense capabilities, but the French are leading publicly and actually flying the bombing runs into Libya. Whether the domestic and international perceptions are what Obama hopes they will be remains to be seen.

Regardless of the allied leadership configuration, however, I have concerns about where this is headed. The textbook successful no-fly zone, in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990's, depended on the group we were protecting having ground forces who could defend a perimeter such that the U.S. and Co. really only had to worry about the Iraqi air force. This is not the case in Libya, which is why we also have the "no drive" zone.

Another difference, however, is that unlike the Kurds the Libyan rebels are not interested in just maintaining autonomy, but want to topple Qadhafi. The international community has just offered to supply an air force allowing them to do so. What happens, however, if the civil war in Libya becomes a stalemate? This whole operation reminds me of Operation Deny Flight, which led after two years to a wholesale aerial bombardment of Bosnian Serb targets. If this conflict drags on, I expect the alliance currently enforcing UN Resolution 1973 to determine that eliminating Qadhafi is better than a commitment of resources with no end in sight.

Then, too, there is the aftermath. The ad hoc organization of the rebels does not seem to provide a clear, nationally recognized leadership which could take over if Qadhafi falls. We should even keep in the mind the possibility that civil war could continue among different factions, with the country possibly even splitting into Tripolitanian and Cyrenaican, or western and eastern, factions fighting for control of the oil in and around the Gulf of Sirte. It is possible the coalition could pull out once the threat of Qadhafi's massacres is removed, but that would defy history and certainly leave a sour taste in mouths in the participating countries.

I am not opposed to a mission to stop massacres from happening. I am, however, concerned about the future direction these events could take. "Mission creep" seems not just a possibility, but a certainty unless the rebels quickly regroup and finish off the regime, and even then, if the country collapses, former colonial powers are not the ideal choices to manage the aftermath. This could indeed be the dawn of an odyssey on which none want to embark.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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