Remember all those liberals parroting the “democracy won’t work in the Middle East” conventional wisdom during an eight-year tantrum against George W Bush? Well, it seems those same liberals are now cheering on the democracy advocates demonstrating throughout the Greater Middle East. Guess they’ve “refined” their position on that.
That aside, there is now much conversation about what we ought to do in Libya, focused mostly on the possibility of establishment a no-fly zone. The two people most responsible for doing that, should we decide to – SecDef Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen – have resolutely voiced their disdain for the idea. Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ) have all come out in favor.
There exists a spectrum of options ranging from doing nothing to outright invasion, of which a no-fly zone is a node. Doing nothing – and high-sounding rhetoric in absentia of action qualifies – if the situation resolves itself before action is taken, lacks foresight, but is promptly the safest. As it is often said, “no decision” is a decision to look the other way. All but committed isolationists would agree that it is in our interest (to say nothing of our national values) to support those peoples seeking freedom from despotic rule. The question becomes what should – can – we do?
We could mount a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty type of program to stream news and opinion into Libya to combat state-propaganda. Two things argue for the superfluosity of this effort. These operations are long-haul endeavors. They are most effective against persistent oppression – that which is instilled and intended to last for years. The type of thing we should have been doing all along, but probably ineffective in the short-term. Satellite television, cell phones and social media have made this type of operation redundant. There is no shortage of “real” news getting to the protesters in Libya.
Arming the Opposition
Arms transfers can happen fast once authorized – we have, in fact, already asked the Saudis to divert some anti-armor and anti-air assets to the rebels in Eastern Libya (which we will replace for the Saudis). So far the opposition seems to be surviving through a combination of defections from the army, ransacking of military warehouses and use of personal weapons or improvised devices of various sorts. This may be inadequate, ultimately, to hold off Qaddafi’s legions, let alone to march on Tripoli. Should we equip them more robustly? This type of operation has the benefit of acting as a force multiplier on the ground without committing American troops.
Our problem here is that we don’t know who is in charge of the opposition forces. There is no spokesman to take responsibility for the security and proper use of American arms and munitions. From the practical aspect, there’s insufficient evidence that American arms would be a game-changer – that the rebels will win, rather than, after all is said and done, having these weapons falling into Qaddafi’s hands to be used against his own people.
I think this is good option for a couple of reasons. The obvious being that the rebels badly need them to remain a viable force against a professionally trained and equipped military. Secondly, we need to demonstrably assist the rebels lest we are rightfully accused of hypocrisy after the fact. That we have intervened everywhere from Kosovo to Afghanistan on behalf of suppressed peoples (Muslims at that) carries no weight with those under siege for whom we have done nothing. This would be the right thing to do, as well as the smart thing to do.
“We did it in Iraq, we can do it in Libya”. Yes, we could – Senator McCain is right about that. But there are substantive differences in the two which he ignores. The establishing of a no-fly zone entails committing acts of war against the target regime – we were already at war with Iraq (Desert Storm ended with a ceasefire, not a treaty). Air superiority is a requisite for enforcing our wishes that Libya not use airpower against rebel forces, assets and territory, and air superiority must be established through combat operations. It doesn’t require ground troops, but it does require rendering Libya’s runways unusable, the liquidation of Libyan ground and naval air defense assets (and personnel), the blinding of Libyan intelligence services, and the destruction of as much of Libya’s air force as possible. Ironically, the best-suited platform to accomplish this is the F-22 Raptor, which the administration has cancelled.
Air strikes are being carried out by Qaddafi in the Western Libyan city of Ras Lanuf as I write this.
On the diplomatic side of things, there will be cries for permission from the UN, NATO compliance, and not offending the sensibilities of those in the area. We should offer a UN resolution for consideration, but go ahead with waiting for the inevitable Russian/Chinese veto. Any commitment to kinetic operations in/over Libya would require NATO consensus, without which it becomes an America-only exercise, and that would be damaging. Equally important, we should have, not only compliance by, but a request from and participation by, the Arab League and African Union. It is important that any such effort be seen as Atlanticist assistance to the region, rather than a Euro-American imposition upon it.
The rebels have requested this, and that is important, but we still don’t know just who “the rebels” are – they have no credible spokesman, and that is equally important. Nations are understandably quiescent about violating another state’s sovereignty in favor of an amorphous armed mob. The rebels really need to put a face on their movement to which the rest of the world can relate. Under these circumstances, I can’t recommend the establishment of a no-fly zone.
Because Qaddafi’s forces are freely traveling from town to town in order to counterattack rebel gains, a follow-on to a no-fly zone would be a no-drive zone – denial of the roadways to Qaddafi’s armor and personnel. This doesn’t require an act of war to establish, it is an ongoing act of war. Everything noted about no-fly zones applies here, in spades. It may be advisable at some point, but isn’t realistic at the present.
Protecting Rebel Gains
This is a sort of selective no-drive zone. Provide troops or air cover for rebel held cities and territories to prevent Qaddafi’s forces from massive counterattacks. This could amount to striking troops massing for the assault as well as assisting in the actual defense of the target. This is no-fly/no-drive with the volume turned up, and would be a reasonable escalation in the face of a failure of no-fly/no-drive operations. It could also be used as a precursor to outright invasion. In either case, it also would have to be used only in compliance with regional actors and NATO.
The best thing the rebels can do to foster their own case – and to profoundly improve their chances of success – is to present a credible leader. While the world desperately wishes to be rid of Qaddafi, there is equal enthusiasm for the avoidance of a repetition of Iran and Gaza, and this brings up the caveat to all of the uprisings in the region and beyond – the idealists who begin revolutions rarely are the people who finish them.
Historically, most revolutions are taken over by forces at least as authoritarian and oppressive as those being replaced. These groups are able to orchestrate takeovers because they are better organized and, generally, more ruthless than the idealists who tend to start revolutionary movements. This is especially true in the Greater Middle East where militant groups operating under the surface are more the norm than an exception. A benign entity capable of assuming political control of Libya (or any of these states currently experiencing uprisings) is vital to meaningful international assistance.
And by “benign” I mean an entity capable of carrying out the will of the people, not necessarily a congruency to American policy. I would argue that if the Gazan Palestinians truly wish to live in an armed ghetto, then they got the government they deserved. I’m not sure Iranians are as sanguine.