On Libya

11 March, 2011

I’m going to dip my toes into some waters I haven’t tread in before: attempting to make sense of the civil conflict currently wracking Libya. There’s a lot of things to consider, and there’s a number of points that I’d like to address. I want to say up front that I am by no means an expert on Libya- I’m way better at Egypt and the Levant than I am with anything in North Africa. If I’m off base on any of my assumptions, please let me know and I’ll happily correct them.


1. No-Fly Zones (NFZ): A cursory consideration of an NFZ makes it sound very appealing, but when you dig a bit deeper, it’s very problematic. For one, I agree with Robert Gates’ assessment that an NFZ would be extremely difficult to enforce. Qadhafi’s loyalist forces do possess an ample amount of surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and radars sufficient enough to pose threats to any aircraft. Maintaining an NFZ would first require suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) missions, which would entail bombing runs. In order to effect that, you’d also need search-and-rescue assets to pluck out downed air crews,  AWACs aircraft to coordinate sorties, and other significant investments of equipment and manpower. An NFZ may seem like it’s a relatively resource-light endeavor, but these things have a way of swelling into extremely large commitments that are almost comparable to maintaining a ground offensive. Also, Qadhafi’s jets aren’t nearly as big of a problem as his helicopter gunships, which can take off anywhere and fly low enough to evade radar detection. Robbing Qadhafi of air superiority would definitely be a boon to the rebels, but doing so could be incredibly difficult.

2. Arming the Rebels: Another option that’s been kicked around is arming the rebels. This also seems attractive because it’s cheaper than a NFZ and presents minimal risk to life. However, the rebel movement is not unified under one banner- while it’s obvious that everyone hates Qadhafi, it’s less obvious what their post-Qadhafi conceptions of governance would look like. While I’m not going to beat on the Islamist drum and I’m not trying to imply that Libya equals Afghanistan, the last time we did the “arm the rebels” plan we found ourselves facing the same arms we gave to the Afghan mujahideen 20 years later. Also, guns have a tendency to migrate- weapons shipped to Libya might just as easily find themselves in some other place in the immediate future.

3. Send in the commandos: This kind of scenario is actually the mission that US Special Forces excel in: aiding an indigenous rebel movement fighting an unconventional war against an unfriendly state power. SF’s entire mission is built around some variant of this platform- amazingly enough, the skills needed to raise an insurgency are also very similar to the ones used to combat an insurgency, as they’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. US commandos worked well with the Afghan Northern Alliance in 2001, and also with the Kurdish Peshmerga in 2003. However, it’s not a given they’d be able to do the same with the Libyan rebels. As I pointed out above, we still don’t have a good enough idea of who the factions are and what they represent. There’s the “transitional government” led by the former Justice minister, but it’s difficult to gauge what their level of support or control over the movement is. Additionally, introducing ANY US ground forces would be EXTREMELY problematic- while we could rightfully claim we’re intervening on the side of freedom and democracy (for real this time, too) it probably wouldn’t go over well in the Arab and Muslim world at all, especially after our disastrous experiment in Iraq. It’s also kind of telling that Benghazi and Darnah (the two main rebel strongholds in eastern Libya) contributed most of the Libyan contingent to Al-Qaeda in Iraq (see pages 10-13 of what I linked to.)

4. International Politics: Of course, none of this matters unless there’s some sort of international mandate that provides the necessary justifications for intervention. A unanimous UN Security Council vote would be needed to invoke the Chapter Seven protections needed for any kind of military intervention, and it’s unlikely that Russia will agree to this (they’ve had their own bloody reckoning with insurgents). Perhaps a better settlement could be undertaken by the Arab countries, but this is also highly unlikely. While the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League have condemned Qadhafi, it’s unlikely that they’ll be handling this on their own. Egypt, the largest Arab military power, is dealing with its own domestic turmoil, and Saudi Arabia, the next largest power, is unlikely to intervene as they have their own domestic civil unrest as well. NATO will wait until a UN resolution clears them to act, and given Qadhafi’s regaining of the initiative, the time for any kind of action is dwindling.

There are no easy or safe options in Libya. The US cannot act unilaterally for a whole host of practical and philosophical reasons, and the international community will probably continue to drag its feet for some time. The sad calculus of international relations also presents an unfortunate truth: a civil war in Libya poses little threat to international order or the global economy, as it isn’t a major oil power like Saudi Arabia or a strategically important country like Egypt. While Qadhafi is a rotten son of a bitch who deserves the full Ceausceu treatment, it seems increasingly unlikely that it’s going to be at the hands of anyone but the Libyan rebels. And unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to succeed without some form of outside help.

In short, this is an ugly thing to watch.

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